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Chapter 1. Eight Manchester Place: Wednesday, 7:15 A.M.
It was a morning thick with winter and a surprising sun. And the light was early. It was gliding down the two-block road, down the stripped-down street, down past where the old frame houses wore their paint like rags and did not concern themselves with frivolities like manicured front lawns or usable porches. The light coasted until it came to the corner where the small brick two-family house stood, stiff and alone.
Eight Manchester Place. That was the home. Well kept and clean, it was a reminder of what this neighborhood, this street, had once looked like. Here had been a community born during the migrations of the 1930s and 1940s, organized by the push and power of the 1960s, rocked by the horse and recession of the 1970s, asphyxiated, cut, cast out, and cracked in the 1980s. Still, there was light somehow. Even in this final decade of the century, with all its bruises and deep-set abrasions, there was light somehow, and this morning it was coming in early.
It was coming in and Aya Rivers, who lived on the second floor of 8 Manchester Place with her mother, Miriam, was trying to sit up under it. Cross-legged in a chair at the dining table, beneath the window and furious spider plant, Aya was reading from an anthology of poems for her Black women's literature class. She was particularly fixated on a Sonia Sanchez verse, when she called out to her mother. "Mom, you gotta hear this," she said.
Miriam answered in that same mild voice she always used no matter what the circumstance, "Okay, okay, but quickly. I have to leave a little earlier than usual today. There's a big meeting at work."
There was always something whenever Aya wanted to talk to her mother. All the trouble she had caused and now, finally, at nineteen, Aya was doing what her mother had asked of her. She was in college and was making excellent grades. She'd been off probation for seven and a half months, and hadn't done anything that would raise an eyebrow with anyone, anywhere. She was trying so hard to be that thing, that neat and perfect thing her mother always wanted her to be.
But it always came back to, how? Not how to become, but how to forever be that thing? With all the swerves and wild twisting that the day could bring, how? That question had never been sorted out clearly for Aya. Her mother would tell her to get proper rest, to eat, to study, and to be on time. But she never told her how to make sense of the confusion and all of the hurt stacked up inside her, stacked and cluttered, chaotic, and dusty.
As much as she could then, Aya relied upon the judge, her probation officer, and even her mother when they said, Just follow the rules. Please, her mother would plead. Just do what they say. Which Aya did. But it didn't help that no one ever said what to do when the rules didn't make sense, when the rules were stupid.
That's where Aya had always stumbled. When she came across a rule that didn't fit into her life. But for the last seven and a half months, and even before that, back when she still had to report to Mr. Wright, Aya had followed the rules, even when they seemed ridiculous. Like the curfew that was so crazy it almost dared her to violate it. The year Aya was turning eighteen years old, she was supposed to be in the house by six o'clock on weekdays and by eight o'clock on Fridays and Saturdays.
Now, with probation over, she no longer had a court-ordered curfew, but Miriam still insisted that Aya be home as early as possible: eight o'clock Sunday through Thursday. The weekends were negotiable. But not by much. Every now and again, Aya would push, though lightly. She would mumble something about wanting to hang out -- just hang out -- and Miriam would not only remind Aya of the girl's own troubled history "just hanging out," but she'd also make a cryptic reference to Aya's father. Something about how he learned the hard way about running the streets. "What do you mean, Mama?" Aya wanted to know.
She wanted to know because these vague remarks Miriam made from time to time about Aya's father countered the image she had in her head of the war hero. Miriam never explained though, beyond remarking with an almost imperceptible measure of sarcasm that he didn't spend the whole of his life in the military, and when he was out in these streets, he didn't always make the right choices. Once, during a stilted, four-sentence conversation about Aya's father, Miriam wandered out of the room muttering something about the need to always buck authority. What was she talking about, Aya wanted to know, but there was no way to know. Not from this woman, not from her mother.
Besides, the last thing Aya wanted to do was upset anyone, which is why she always let her questioning go, she usually made it home even before dusk settled in, and she concentrated on her schoolwork. Because her grades were so high, she told her mother that she hoped to get a scholarship for graduate school. "To study what?" Miriam asked one morning as she made herself a cup of coffee. "Psychology, I think," Aya answered matter-of-factly. "I want to understand people so I can help them." Miriam had just looked at her daughter and nodded. She said nothing. Aya had looked at her mother that day, waiting for engagement, but it did not come. And when it did not come -- it never came -- she slipped, Aya did, back into her mind, back into her plan of finishing school, getting a job, moving out, doing her own thing, really living her life. For now though, she'd have to tolerate this life, as constrained, unclear, and frustrating as it was.
There was one thing Aya found completely unfair, nearly intolerable. It was the mandate about Dawn: She was not to hang out with her. As if it had been Dawn who was the bad influence, as if it had been Dawn and not Aya who would fight anybody, try anything, go anywhere. As if it had been Dawn and not Aya who had mastered the art of lying. Dawn and not Aya who had the courage to get all hooked up, and make fake IDs, and go out to the clubs, and flirt with men twice their age.
Dawn would never have done any of that. If anything, Dawn was the one who would say, "Aya. Let's just go to the movies, girl. I don't want to get caught up in all this mess." And it was Aya who would push and cajole her friend until the girl gave in, which she always did eventually. They would leave Aya's house, and tell Miriam that they were going to the movies and to sleep at Dawn's. Miriam did not know that Dawn's mother, the only parent in the home, worked nights. Miriam would say, as she said every time, "Okay. All right. I'll give you a ring before I go to sleep to say good night."
"Okay, Mom," Aya would say before bouncing out of her house with a smirk. She knew Miriam would call by 10:30, and sometimes when she called, they would have the television turned up as though they were watching a show. Sometimes they pretended to be sleeping. But by 11:00 p.m. the girls were dressed and made up, their nails were done, their hair was done, and they were heading out to the club. And despite the fact that when they started doing this, neither girl was yet sixteen, makeup, fake out-of-state IDs, and especially Aya's confidence convinced people that they were twenty-five.
They would get in the club and begin dancing immediately. Even though they had to start out dancing together, in almost no time a couple of brothers would come over and join them, and Aya, dancing and winding sexy, would always talk men into buying them drinks.
On the night that Aya still replayed in her head, there had been these two men, friends, who were such excellent dancers, so generous, so fine, and sweet, that when one of them asked Aya to come back with them to their apartment, she had agreed to it, and then she had convinced Dawn to come along, that it was going to be fun. Together, the girls went with the men to a building that was just over the 138th Street bridge. The men lived in a loft at the edge of the Bronx, where Aya imagined she would be taken to the edge of her fantasy, her secret Prince Charming fantasy. It was the one she had had for the whole of her life. The one that had her being claimed by somebody, claimed and cherished.
This dream, this hope, coursed through Aya like a sudden and brilliant and convincing hallucination when she looked at Robert, the man who had been talking to her, dancing with her, buying her drinks and making her laugh. And Robert, who was carved, beautiful, deep brown, thick, and shining. Aya thought maybe this was him, the man who would love and take care of her. The man who would make her feel as though she belonged somewhere. There was something in the way he stared all the way into her when they danced, the way his hand confidently touched her hip as they moved together in the beat and dark. He opened her up there, on the dance floor where everybody became their own universe, and everybody became the same universe. She still remembered thinking how it seemed crazy to want this man in an instant, but then again, you had to meet the great love of your life somewhere, somehow, didn't you?
At the club that night, Robert was the one who suggested it. He said he wanted to get out of there, to go back to his place where they could really, really talk and get to know one another, away from crowds and noise. Robert said he didn't want Aya to be just some girl he danced with in a club who disappeared after the music ended. And it was after this plea, this sweet plea that made Aya feel desired and hungered for, that she took Dawn into the ladies' room and said, "Come on. Let's go with them. We'll have fun! They're really nice. Plus it's perfect timing since your mother is in Atlantic City for the weekend. Come on!"
At first Dawn had said, "No, Aya. We don't know them. I don't want to." She'd said, "Aya, I don't want to do this. Please. Please."
But Aya had pushed her. Aya had told her not to be so damn afraid of everybody. "They're so nice," she'd whined. "And so cute. And they bought all the drinks. This is fun. We're having fun. So come on. Come on." Aya stared into Dawn's immobile expression. "Listen, this feels like it's going to be fine. There's something about Robert. And I'm sure if you talk to Marcus more you'll see he's sweet, too. Plus we're together. There's two of us."
"And there's two of them, too."
"I know. But I really like him. You know this isn't usually me, girl. I never even give out my number. But these guys are different. Can't you see that?"
"Not really," Dawn argued.
But finally she relented and the two girls fixed their makeup and headed out of the ladies' room to meet the men who quickly steered them out of the club, out onto a wide and fast late-night Manhattan street corner where they hailed a taxi and sped uptown.
Robert Small and his friend Marcus lived in an expansive loft that was once a factory where chickens were packaged. It might have been beautiful-looking, this building, but the owner didn't have the money or the inclination to renovate it the way they did the old silk factory building downtown, and all the others like it in SoHo. Here, there were no bright parquet floors. Here, there were no clean and glistening walls. There were no shimmering brand-new fixtures. Here, nothing shone. Any beauty that existed in this building was brought to it by the tenants, many of whom also had the converse effect.
So what it was, where these two men lived, where barely sixteen-year-old Aya and barely sixteen-year-old Dawn went to, was an old building with sixteen-foot ceilings that was cut up into spaces where people could live in or squat, whatever you wanted to call it. It was, and this briefly occurred to Aya, like walking into an old black-and-white photo. Walking into a photo you saw in a book about war. It was something like that. Something like devastation. Nevertheless, and never having been much of anywhere, the girls were impressed.
"Excuse the mess," Robert said, as the foursome walked in. "I'm a designer," he explained, picking up an unfinished pair of pants. "I work in leather. See?"
All over the apartment were jackets, coats, and other garments in varying states of completion, but mostly there were scraps and bits of things that were unidentifiable. Robert quickly cleared off the couch and chairs, and asked the young women to sit down. It occurred to him as he looked at the girls here beneath his track lights that they definitely didn't look old enough to be in that club. Dawn's dimpled cheeks were still puffed by baby fat. Her hair was set in Shirley Temple curls. Her skin looked new, and her waist was still only barely defined. And Aya, pretty Aya with her close-cropped hair and almond eyes, the full sensuous mouth and the long shapely legs, the round breasts and stand-up nipples, even with the makeup and the tight body, even she looked very young. But so what. So what, he thought.
Dawn had plopped herself heavily onto the worn black leather sofa, but Aya sat down slowly, the way she saw women do in movies, crossing her legs just so, the certain curve of her thigh enough to hush an assembly of men. It hushed these men, and Aya knew it. She knew Robert was watching everything she did. Even Marcus was, but she didn't really care about him. He ought to be paying attention to Dawn. That's what she was thinking as she reached over to Robert, bending in such a way that hinted at her breasts.
And Robert looked at this girl who was trying to pass for a woman and thought how she looked like something to be eaten. Something to be bitten into. He thought about all the things he was going to do to her, how he was going to turn and twist her so he could get into every part of her. He imagined her on her knees. He imagined her screaming.
But his face gave none of this away. His face was, the whole time, easy, smiling, reassuring. He made light conversation, talked about being a designer, and told Aya she was pretty enough to be a model. "Both of you are," he said, and Dawn blushed.
"Marcus," Robert began, "why don't you go open a bottle of champagne so we can celebrate making new friends?" Marcus got four glasses and a bottle of Perrier Jouet and poured the drinks and toasted to friendship. Excited and nervous, the girls drank their champagne down, but the men only took a small sip of theirs.
The girls did not notice this, how little champagne the men drank, any more than they noticed how Robert and Marcus did not smoke much of the blunt that was suddenly being passed around. And because neither Aya nor Dawn had much experience with getting high, they also did not notice the minty taste of angel dust that was mixed in with the weed.
Today, three years later, on this February morning, it all seemed so stupid, so foolish to Aya. The way she went to their house, how she encouraged Dawn, how she sat there and got high in that foreign place. But that night it had all made sense, it had felt so comfortable. Aya still remembered how the high did not hit her or Dawn immediately. She remembered how at first they were just sort of stunned by the weed, but certainly not disabled by it. She remembered Robert taking her by the hand.
"Come here," he had said in a voice that was wet with sweat, a sticky voice that stuck to the inside of Aya's brain, where everything was beginning to slip into itself. Everything was slowly becoming indistinguishable, sloppy and useless. Aya walked toward Robert, and he led her into his room.
"I have something I made. I want to give it to you." In his room Robert closed the door, and motioned for Aya to sit on the bed, which she did; she almost stumbled onto it.
Robert opened his dresser drawer. "Here," he said, pulling out a leather halter top. "See if this fits. Put this on."
"Okay," Aya agreed, clumsy in her examination of the skimpy burnt orange top. The drugs and alcohol turned her voice against itself, but finally she managed, "Where's the bathroom so I can change?"
"Girl, don't be crazy. You can change right here. I'll tie it in the back for you."
"No. That's okay. Really. Where's the bathroom?" Aya insisted, despite the fog that had settled into her mind.
"I know you ain't shy," Robert challenged, and then, "Are you?"
"No. No. I just, umm, want to, you know, surprise you. You know what I'm saying?" Aya wished the debate would end. It was getting so hard to keep finding words.
"All right. Okay," allowed Robert, apparently relenting. And then, "I'll turn around. Tell me when you have it on."
Tired, defeated, Aya reluctantly agreed to those conditions. "Okay. Turn around," she said softly, and then she turned around, too. She began to unbutton her shirt, which was a sleeveless, cropped silk-like vest that you could not wear a bra with.
Even now, as she recalled that night, Aya once again felt the sudden, tight grasp of fear, the instant wash of anxiety that had spread across every part of her. Even now her heart raced madly and she became queasy. That night, when she was suddenly naked from the waist up, Aya was shaking, but not so that anyone watching could see because it was inside of her, this shaking that had her feeling as though in the very next second she was going to collapse, that her bones would come apart, that they would just crumble.
And Aya could remember how she wanted to scream, but then she'd thought, what has he done to make me scream? Besides, screaming took energy, and she'd felt as though the high had taken all of hers. She remembered calming herself down. He's only given me a gift. This is what she said to the inside of herself. Just calm down, relax, stop acting like a child. She thought, the best thing I can do is simply to relax, but even as she thought it, she knew that this was frivolous advice.
It was impossible for her to relax because as she was standing there, partly undressed, telling herself that everything was fine, she could feel him. She could sense Robert's movement, his beat and his breath close, close, which is why she was not surprised, although nevertheless horrified, when she felt his hands slip around her naked waist, and then travel up until they were grabbing at her breasts.
Aya tried to say no! But her brain was now unwound by the alcohol, the drugs, and the unanticipated turn of events. Her voice was a small broken staccato of sound. If she could have sorted through and spoken aloud the jumble and chatter in her head, Aya would have said that this is not what she wanted, that she understood how it looked, but she wasn't ready for this. She would be ready, but not tonight. Tonight was too fast. Aya wanted to say these things, and if she could have, she would have.
Just as she would have said, had she been able, something about wanting to be in love, and about wanting someone to be in love with her. She would have talked about how good and warm and important it would be if, for once, she could feel claimed. If she could walk down city streets with someone holding her hand. Like they belonged to each other. Aya wanted to say that, from the way he had been talking to her at the club, the delicate sweetness of his voice there, she had truly believed that he wanted these things, too.
Aya would have told Robert about being a virgin, and she would have told him all the things that her mother had taught her about "giving it away." How it meant the years after of being alone. That was always the implication. A child without a father. A life without a pulse. Aya had learned this from her mother, who always had herself as a living example of bad choices, though Miriam never did say what those bad choices were.
But none of those thoughts came out as words. They came out instead as a beggar's look that Robert found easy to ignore. And then what happened after, everything that happened after, was too dim, overcast, blurred, and murky for Aya to ever remember it in a way that was meaningful.
What she remembered was being there naked from the waist up, feeling the melting and chaos inside her head. She remembered her back being turned, and his was supposed to be, too, and how she was getting ready to put on a burnt orange leather halter top, and then his hands coming around her waist, her breasts, and then what, what?
How did she get on the bed? She had never been able to recall that. Only how he was on top of her, and how his kissing was not kissing, but really biting, and also how, trapped beneath his weight, she could not get any air. She remembered that. How there was no air, but not how, frantic for oxygen, she was able to dive deep inside herself and pull.
Aya could not remember how she pulled deep down from the center of herself, how she reached into the place where her strength was stored, how she yanked and jerked until it was all free, every bit of it. Aya could not remember or understand how she shoved that man, like this, Bam! with both her hands and he went flying. Robert hit the dresser, and groaned, and as soon as he realized what happened, he looked at Aya with eyes that pushed hate, and demanded,
"What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Robert did not yell this -- indeed, he nearly whispered it. And it was no question, this was a demand. Aya did not answer. She could not. Where was her voice, where was her sound? She still could not find them. Her mouth was open, but nothing. Nothing.
Enraged, Robert moved toward her.
"I said, what the fuck is wrong with you, girl? You better relax. You better relax and get back on that muthafuckin bed and stop tripping. You hear me?"
But she didn't hear him. Aya didn't hear anything. She only saw things now:
The man moving toward her.
The knife there on the dresser.
And she grabbed it, the knife. Robert stared at her. He glanced at the knife but he stared at the girl. And staring at her, he saw it, the measure of her youth, the width and depth of it. He saw all the things she did not know, and had not done, and could not yet understand. He saw all the things she still feared. He saw that she was a virgin. But this seeing did not elicit any sort of sympathy or calm. In fact, it made him very, very angry. As a man. He was very, very angry.
To be set up, to be teased in this way by this girl, this virgin, this bitch who had his knife in her hand. Why had she wasted his time? She was not going to waste his time. She was not going to play him. Robert looked at Aya and said in a voice so menacing it astounded her, it made her bite down on her tongue, "Let me ask you something. Who you think you fucking with? What the fuck is wrong with you? Put the knife down. Now." Robert's voice was low, and really, you needed to lean into it to hear it clearly. Aya did not do that of course. She only knew he was moving toward her. Aya was fixed, motionless, and then Robert was in front of her.
"I said put the fucking knife down, little girl." But she did not, which was when Robert pinched Aya's nipple violently, and she opened her mouth to cry, but still, nothing! Not a word, not a phrase, not a yell, not a whimper. That Aya remembered -- the pain and also the silence.
But when did she drive the knife into him, and where? His shoulder? That's what they said later, but she could not remember. When had she twisted the knife around, the way they said she did? She could not remember. Not that, and not if he screamed or didn't scream. Not if he pulled the knife out, or if she did. Aya could not even remember running out of Robert's room half dressed, clutching the leather top, leaving behind the one she had come with, leaving behind her bag, and for some reason, on her way out, grabbing his wallet, fat with cash.
She could not remember telling Dawn to, "Come on. Come on! We got to get out of here." Or Dawn, not even hesitating, but running out the door with Aya, and stopping her in the stairwell only to help her get the halter top on. Dawn yelling, "Girl, what happened, what happened? Oh my God, there's blood! Are you bleeding? What happened? Oh my God!"
Aya could not remember the police stopping them fifteen minutes later as they ran through the unfamiliar Bronx streets looking for a train station or cab, something, anything, to get them the hell out of there. She could not remember that, or later, the handcuffs, or the ride to the police precinct, the holding cell, or her mother coming to get her.
But Miriam did get her. She posted the $1,000 bail and took Aya on a long, silent train ride home, where Miriam very quietly told her daughter to go take a shower and then explain to her exactly what happened. Aya tried to explain, but nothing came out right. Not one part. It all seemed so stupid now. None of it made any sense. Miriam never said that to her daughter, but after each statement Aya made, Miriam, staring intently, would repeat it as a question. And so the conversation went like this:
"We went to the club at about eleven."
"You went to the club at eleven o'clock?"
"Well, Dawn's mother went away, so then it just came to us because everybody at school had talked about this place and we wanted to go, too."
"Dawn's mother went away? It came to you to go?"
"Mom, let me just tell you what happened."
Miriam did not respond. She just kept staring at Aya. Staring and frowning. Aya tried to talk, but she stumbled over her words because saying what happened out loud made things all seem like her fault. Made things seem crazy and incomprehensible. How could Aya convey to her mother that she just wanted to have fun, she just wanted to feel good. How could she explain that getting all dressed up and going out dancing made it seem as though she was part of someone else's life. And being in someone else's life, someone who was fly and sexy, someone who people wanted to know, was intoxicating.
Aya looked into the unblinking stare of her mother, the hard line that was her mouth, and knew there was no way to say what it was about the man, about Robert. No way to explain the initial sweetness. No way to talk about her hunger for love and touch and loving touch. No way to explain what she did not understand herself. She could not do it.
She could not do it and so she did not try to do it. Aya told her mother a whittled-down story about how she had been drinking and it was her first time and the man had gotten the wrong idea and reached for her and she'd panicked and that's when she picked up the knife and did it. But, she said, she never meant to hurt him. She just wanted to get away. Where was Dawn, Miriam had asked calmly.
"Umm. In the other room."
"Uh-huh," Miriam had responded. "You were in a bedroom alone with a man you just met? What wrong idea could he get?"
Aya opened her mouth to answer her mother, but Miriam put her hand up. "Stop. No more. Listen to me. I don't want to hear any more of this. I'm very disappointed in you, Aya. And very ashamed of your behavior. I raised you to know and do better than this. Lying, sneaking around, going to some man's house you don't even know, going into a room alone with him."
"I'm sorry, Mommy. I know it was stupid. I know."
"I don't think you do. I heard the charges against you. I don't think you understand the seriousness of what you've done. But you will."
And those were the words Aya remembered as she listened to the judge say two years, one to be served in the Division for Youth, one to be served on probation. It was supposed to be a deal. It didn't feel like one. But the lawyer Miriam hired said they could have sentenced Aya as an adult. They could have even gone for attempted murder.
She was convicted only of assault and robbery and the lawyer told Miriam, who borrowed against six months of salary to make the first payments to the attorney, that they were lucky. The judge said the case was treated with unusual leniency because Aya was a first-time offender. But of all the emotions that coursed through them that day in the courtroom, neither Aya nor Miriam felt lucky. Not then, and not once during the interminably long year that Aya spent locked up. The year that Miriam spent alone and helpless to rescue her child.
There was no luck in going without visits, which Aya did since Miriam had been forced to take a second job in a diner on the weekends to finish paying off the attorney. And Dawn, who was only given probation, and whose mother had snatched her daughter up and transferred her to a different school, had disappeared. Besides her, there really was no one else who would have made the four-hour trek upstate to see Aya.
Miriam came once, when Aya first got to the Hall. She told Aya that she was going to have to get a second job, but even if she didn't, on principle she wasn't going to be the kind of mother who would "run up here every weekend. Some children seem tracked for places like this. Some have no parents. You didn't have your father, but you had me. And I have done nothing that wasn't for you. I have tried to give you whatever you needed. I haven't had a day off since you were born. If I wasn't changing a diaper, I was changing a file, changing the coffeepot, cleaning, clearing, whatever, whenever. I can't believe this is my reward. I didn't deserve this from you, Aya. You didn't deserve this from yourself. You think about that. About what you had, and about what you threw away. And maybe when you come home you'll appreciate things."
"I'm sorry, Mommy. I'm really, really sorry," Aya said as reality began to break her face down into a flood of tears.
"Show me," Miriam whispered to her sobbing child. "You do this time, and don't give these people any problems, and come home and be the daughter I raised you to be. Can you do that?"
"I can do that, Mommy," Aya whimpered. Miriam held her daughter, not for very long, but she held her and she kissed her and she told her it was going to be fine, everything was. She went in her pocket and pulled out a tissue and wiped her girl's face, and she stared at the child she'd borne, the child she was going to have to get up and walk away from. Which is what she did. When the time abruptly came, the guard said visiting was over and Miriam stood up, embraced her daughter quickly, and said to no one, "Okay. Okay." And then she was gone.
For one year. Four times, not including her birthday or Christmas, Miriam sent Aya cards. And once more she visited. Right before Aya was about to come home, Miriam came to see her daughter's progress, and Aya impressed her. In the year she'd been locked up, Aya had gotten her GED, and taken alternative to violence and drug programs. She'd behaved perfectly, and her institutional record reflected this.
"Mommy, I just want to come home and go to college and be normal," Aya said and then leaned into her mother's chest. Awkwardly, Miriam patted her daughter on her back and said, "And I want you home, Aya. I do. I have missed you." She paused, and for the first time, her voice could not hide the weight of her emotion. "I really have. I just want things to be right."
"They will be, Mommy. I swear." Aya's eyes went wide with promise, and the two lapsed into a conversation about college. Miriam had picked up an application and financial aid forms for Aya, and Aya talked about the classes she wanted to take. She said she was excited, and Miriam nodded, quelling her daughter's energy. "Just come home and do well," she whispered, adding that doing well required a specific kind of discipline. "Right. I know," Aya assured her mother. "I know."
Now, at home, it was the rules. It was everything restricted. And it was hard, but Aya did want to succeed. She definitely didn't want to go back to where she'd been. So here and now, away from her old life and into her new one, the one where she was a neat and combed college student who got all A's her first two semesters, what she tried to remember was the advice about slowing down. A social worker had said this to her, that she needed to consider all the possible consequences of her actions. Think about them before she made a decision. What were the possible risks, and were they worth it? When and where she was able to, Aya put this advice to use. Like this morning.
This particular February morning, when it was one month into the new semester, and when Aya, excited over what she was learning in class, tried to talk to her mother about a poem by Sonia Sanchez. It was a poem that made sense, a poem that made her feel human and connected and understood, and when Miriam clearly was uninterested, the hurt Aya felt made her want to curse, to lash out, and say, "I hate you! You never have time for me! You never have anything for me!"
But she did not. Aya breathed back her anger and said, "Okay, okay, okay. I'll read fast." Aya began to read while Miriam continued on with what she had to do: first make the coffee, then put the bread in the toaster, then pull out the grapefruit, slice it in two, get down the plates, set the table.
Finishing her preparations, Miriam sat down to eat as Aya triumphantly concluded the poem,
I shall become a collector of me / and put meat on my soul!
"Isn't that beautiful, Mom?"
"Yes. Uh-huh. It is." Miriam said this as she tried to figure out how many packets would be needed for the meeting that day, how many pens, how much coffee, how much tea. She did not look up at her daughter, and so her daughter looked away from her.
Miriam finished her breakfast, and across from her Aya let the words in the book become an intimate dance against the silence. She let the words become an embrace, full on and complete, and gradually her sadness and anger began to dissipate, though not entirely. Miriam rose, cleared the table, kissed her daughter on the forehead, and said, "Don't sit here reading all day. What time is your first class?"
"Oh. Well, don't be late. See you tonight."
And Miriam said good-bye. She called it over her shoulder, pulled her coat out of the closet, and picked her purse up off the kitchen counter. Miriam walked out of the door and headed up the block, up along the route she took every weekday. She thought about how proud she was of her daughter. All A's!
But she also thought, don't get too excited. You never know what's coming around the corner with this girl. Never know what's coming around the corner, period. Quickly moving toward the train station, for some reason Miriam thought about when she had first moved to this neighborhood, the hard mean days that had brought her and her baby girl here. As fast as the thought came, however, Miriam let it go. Without even trying, and without a break in her step, Miriam let the thought go, and she just continued on, and she did not look back.
Aya sat at the table for another thirty minutes. She sat there and thought about her mother, a woman she had lived with all her life but a woman she still did not know. Miriam was a woman who added up only into fractions of a number. She was fractions of a woman, of a mother, a parent, a person. That's how Aya saw it, and didn't want to be that way, too.
Small tears collected in the sides of Aya's eyes, and she wanted to know how to make her mother see her. See her growing, glowing, and needing more than hot meals and fall school clothes. More than homework reviewed, and admonitions about chores and responsibilities. If things are changing everywhere every day, why couldn't they? Why couldn't they be closer, have intimate talks, do silly things, mother and daughter things? Why did her mother make mothering seem like a chore, like an unwelcome assignment from an unfair boss. Aya felt like an item on a to-do list. How could she become more, to her mother, to herself?
Aya remembered Dawn's mother, the nights at their house. She remembered the way the rooms filled with the wall-shaking sound of her laugh. She remembered the bid whist games and beers, the times she slipped and cussed, and Aya and Dawn heard her and giggled. Mostly Aya remembered all those times she saw Dawn's mother kiss her daughter. The times she hugged and cracked bad jokes with her, and she wondered, have you ever told me a joke, Mommy, or kissed me just because? Did you do it when I was baby, did you stop just when I began to walk? I miss you, Mommy. I miss the mother I never had and I don't think it's fair. I already don't have a father or grandfather or grandmother or cousin. I have no one and am lonely, Mommy. I am reaching for you. There is no one else.
Do you know I hate living in such a quiet house, Mommy? Mama? Please listen to me. There are things I want to say. Aren't there things you want to say, too?
Copyright © 2003 by asha bandele