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Say, Say, Say
Mama say I'm grown now because I got Imani. She say Imani all mine. I know she all mine, and I like it just like that, not having to share my baby with no one. Imani even look like me. I know she do, got my nose on her face, and my lips, my hands. Her fingers shaped just like mine, wide and flat. I don't care what nobody say, who they say they might see in her. It's only me in her.
When I be getting up with her at night, it be my own face looking back at me. I want to be mad at her because it be two o'clock in the morning. Imani so little she don't know when it's a weekend, and I ain't got to get up and go nowhere. She don't know when it's a weekday, and I be having to get up and go to school. It's high school now. Lincoln. I got to get there a whole hour earlier than I had to get to middle school. But I don't be mad at Imani when I look her in the face and see me. I be smiling at her. Real quick I go to her, because Mama done told me she don't want to hear Imani crying. She say she going to get me if she cry too much.
Even though I done had her just five months, I got things down right. It's what you call a routine. Before Imani can let out one good scream, my feet be on the floor. Sometimes it seem I still be sleep, but I go pick her up from her crib. She still light, like a doll or a puppy. It seem like she was heavier when she was inside my stomach.
I press her face against my shoulder and take her downstairs to fix her bottle. Imani a good baby. A real good baby. She know she got to be quiet, so when I hold her headagainst my titties, she hush right up. She don't want to see me get in no trouble. While the bottle heat up, I walk with her around the kitchen. She like that. It's like she even know the routine. We walk around in the dark kitchen with that tiny blue flame dancing under the pot on the stove.
I take her in the living room and punch on the TV. There don't be nothing on. Our cable done been cut off. Even our illegal cable that June Bug had climbed up the pole and hooked up for us. One day last year I was coming home from school and seen this white man from the cable company up on a pole cutting wires left and right. Some of our neighbors was peeping out they curtains. But they ain't come out. Not even June Bug. I seen him like a shadow pressed inside his screen door, watching that cable man cut down the pair of sneakers that was hanging on the wires in front of his house. June Bug wait for the cable man to leave and he went and got them sneakers and tied them back together. I heard this boy on the bus say once drug dealers be hanging up sneakers in front of they houses. That sound stupid to me. Like they advertising. Everybody know June Bug sell drugs. He don't need no sneakers announcing it.
Me and Mama was sitting out on the front porch, watching him and not watching him. We was drinking us some good sweet and cold Kool-Aid and eating salt-and-vinegar potato chips. June Bug kept tossing them sneakers. Seem like he had two wounded gray and nasty-looking birds folded up in his hands. Trying to get them back up into the sky. He threw them up about ten times and they come crashing back to the ground. This little cockeye boy that live down at the corner with his grandma come running up the street and say he could toss them sneakers up there. I thought he going to clunk hisself in the head. But he got them sneakers up on a telephone wire in just two throws with his cockeye self.
June Bug say, You all right little man. In a few years I'm going to have you working for me. He give that boy some money, and that boy went racing back down the street.
Mama say it was a shame, because June Bug the one got that boy mama all strung out in the first place on that stuff. That's how come he living with his grandma in the second place.
I ain't say nothing about them. I ask Mama about the cable.
She say, What you want me to do? I'm sick of this shit. That's the second time they done come and cut the cable.
I say, You can pay the bill.
Mama say, If I had money to pay the goddamn bill in the first place, we wouldn't have to bootleg.
When I told Mama maybe we could get June Bug to go back up the pole, she roll her eyes at me and suck her teeth. Huh, she say. I ain't paying no more damn twenty dollars for nobody to go up no pole to turn around and ain't got no service. We watching whatever come on for free.
So when I be watching our old boring stone-age TV at night with Imani, ain't even no point in turning on the sound. The light help keep me awake while Imani nurse. She be greedy at first, like she ain't had a bottle in years. Maybe it seem like years to her. Sometimes I don't know all what's inside her head, what she understand. I go to this class, though. It teach you more about a baby.
My middle school counselor signed me up for it last spring after Imani was born and got her in the daycare. I like that. Having her close by all day. Knowing she just down on the first floor with the other babies. Mama say when she went to school, there wasn't no classes like them. There wasn't no nurseries in high schools. Maybe there should have been. Mama say you took care of your baby the best way you knew how. Mama say me and the other girls is spoiled. That is all. Plain and simple. We got things too easy.
Most of the girls who got babies in the nursery take the class. They even got girls in there that is going to have babies. My friend Eboni going to have a baby. She barely seven months, but she look like she about ready to deliver.
Me and Eboni sit together. Our seats right in the front of the room, and we don't like the teacher, Mrs. Poole. Her breath stink, flat out. That shouldn't make you not like a person, but it sure make them hard to listen to, especially when they be all up in your face. Mrs. Poole like that; she be all up in your face telling you how to wipe shit off a baby butt, and you can really imagine doing it because her breath smell like some shit you can't just wipe away with a moist towelette.
Mrs. Poole the one told me about "establishing a routine" with Imani. She say babies like routines. They act better if they know what to expect. I believe that's true about Imani. She so smart, she learned her routine quick. But I don't know if all Mrs. Poole say true. Maybe it's because I be half-listening, because I'm trying to dodge her breath. Like she say, a baby bond with you, a baby bond with its mother. Mrs. Poole say a baby ain't born loving its mother. I swear that's what she say last week. I ask Eboni after school was that what she say, and Eboni say it was. Mrs. Poole say you got to teach a baby to love you. Now, I think that ain't even true. Imani was born loving me.
The crazy thing was, I wasn't loving Imani all along. Loving her every minute because I was scared. Mama thought I was hiding Imani from her. It's just like Mama to think that. She only knew part of the truth. I was hiding her from myself. I didn't even know she was there inside my stomach until I missed my fourth period. Eboni say she knew before I even told her. We was in the same gym class, and Eboni say she could see my stomach growing.
When I told her one day after gym was over, Eboni say she thought it might not be too late to get rid of it. Get rid of it? I ain't like the way that sound, like the baby was just going to be throwed out. I ain't want that and told Eboni so. She ask, What you want then? To give it away? I shook my head. Eboni put her arms around me, and you'd think that'd be enough to stop me from getting upset. But I went crazy crying and couldn't stop. The gym teacher come in and say I could go to the nurse, but I ain't want to go. I was thinking the nurse would look right at me and see I had a baby in me. Then she'd tell Mama. Then I'd get beat.
My gym teacher let me and Eboni go in her office and stay there up until the next bell. She wrote a note saying I was hit in the head with a ball and was laying down for a period. I don't know what she wrote for Eboni. I wasn't crying no more when the bell rang. Wasn't no more tears. Eboni promised she wouldn't tell nobody, but she say I had to tell Mama. But I say I couldn't and she knew I couldn't. Mama'd say I been doing nasty things with boys. I'm not nasty.
Sometimes I think Imani had a routine before she even come out of me. Every night she'd wake me up at just about this same time. She'd be moving around. I would hold my breath, keeping real still until she stopped. I was stupid enough to think she could punch a hole in my stomach and come right on out me. Maybe she just wanted to remind me she was in there, because I was doing my best to forget.
Carrying her mostly through winter and into a Buffalo spring that's just like winter, I wore these big sweats. It wasn't hard to keep her a secret. My stomach never really poked out much, anyway. I just kept getting fatter from eating so much. I don't really like Mama's cooking, but I don't say that to her, because she'll say I'm ungrateful for all she do for me, and slap me.
Mostly when I was carrying Imani, I'd go to Eboni's after school. Her mama, Miss Lovey, a good cook. I think Eboni told her about the baby. I ain't saying Eboni is the kind of loud-mouth girl who tell all your business. She ain't like one of them girls on the bus. You give them a bone on the way to school, and on the bus ride back, they done already showed it to every bitch they know and they all trying to get a lick off it.
Miss Lovey ain't say nothing to me. She just pile my plate up real high with food, with liver and onions, lasagna loaded up with them hot Italian sausage, and her greens. They the best. She rinse her greens real good. Don't be nam grain of sand in them, and she cook them with two kinds of meat, ham hocks and bacon, and she season them just right, with hot sauce and vinegar. Thinking about them even now make my stomach flip.
Miss Lovey ain't never ask me nothing about me having a baby. She would push a extra biscuit on my plate, pour me a big glass of buttermilk, slip a piece of fat meat on my plate she know I like. Sometimes she'd look at me with that look adults have, the one where they know you got a secret and they want you to tell them so they can slide into a seat next to you and pat your hand or rub your back while you spill your guts out to them.
I looked right back at Miss Lovey when she looked at me like that. I give her that I-know-you-know-I-got-a-secret look, but I ain't going to say it. Why I got to say it when she already know what it was?
Mama ain't even know about Imani until one morning when I ain't get up for school on time. I was all tired because Imani had kept me up kicking and moving around all night. I guess she was tired of being in me. And these cramps was pinching in my back. They was soft at first like my period was coming, but then they got harder. I finally took me three aspirins real late. I only got a hour of sleep by the time the alarm went off. It's right by my bed, so I shut it off, but I didn't get up. I should've like I do now with the routine. I should've let my feet hit the floor and start walking without me. It seem like I just closed my eyes when I heard Mama up. I looked at the clock. It was five minutes before the bus come. I thought I could make it if I wore the sweats I slept in and just wiped a rag over my face and run out the door. But my sweats was too funky so I started to change them when Mama opened my room door.
I was standing there in my drawers. I didn't even have my bra on yet. I ain't say nothing. I ain't have to. My titties say it. They was as big as watermelons. My stomach say it. It was all stretched wide, spread out around my body. I know I looked ugly, even though I ain't looked at myself in a mirror in a long time. Not even on my birthday, the month before.
I was fifteen on my birthday. I wasn't all that excited about turning fifteen. Fourteen neither. Last time I was excited about my birthday was when I turned thirteen and I was finally a teenager. They always be having them articles in Seventeen about how great it is to be old enough to wear makeup, how to dress for the prom, what twenty pieces of clothes you got to have to go back to school in the fall, how to tell if a boy like you. I ain't think I was going to look like them girls in there, all skinny and all, but I did think I might feel like them. Happy. And I was. We had a ice cream cake and subs delivered. Mama got me a card. The card say something about being a teenager now. It was a joke card with a white girl on the front talking on the phone, and a corny rhyme inside.
I wasn't expecting nothing for my birthday this year. Mama just give me money last year, twenty dollars in my hand. So I wasn't looking forward to nothing great this year. What's so special about being fifteen? But what I ain't count on was Mama hitting the number. She did the Pick Four on my birth date. Month and year.
Mama give me a real nice birthday. I would've liked it if she'd just turned the cable back on. But Mama went all out for me. She got me ice cream and a cake, a real bakery cake with candles on it. She let Eboni come over. We ordered a bucket of Buffalo wings and pizza with anything I wanted on it. I got double cheese, ham, pepperoni, and hot sausage. Miss Odetta come over, too. She June Bug mama.
Eboni give me these gold earrings with my name on them. They not real gold. They that fake gold them Arabians be selling down in the Main Place Mall. The earrings nice, though. They ain't turn my ears green or make break out or nothing. Miss Odetta give me a card with twenty dollars in it. Mama give me a new pair of sneakers. Nikes. She paid some real money for them, or maybe she got them hot. I ain't ask. I needed some new kicks. My feet been growing, so I'm glad to have them. Mama give me a card, too.
It had a black mama and girl on the front. The girl was little, sitting in her mama lap. On the front of the card was To my darling, beautiful daughter on her birthday. On the inside it didn't rhyme. It say, May all the joy in the world be with you on this very special day. It was signed Mama. I closed it real quick and stuffed it in my sneakers.
Before I went to bed that night, I laced up my sneakers so I could show them off at school the next day. Then I did something I shouldn't have. I opened the card from Mama and read it again. I started crazy crying again, like I did that day at school.
That card was lying on me. I wasn't none of those things it say I was. I didn't have to look at myself to know that, to know how ugly and broke-down I looked. All these stretch marks running crazy over me. For months they had been on my titties, on my stomach. It looked like I was going to crack open and something was going to come from inside me, not just the baby, but something else, like in a horror movie where there be monsters in people and they don't even know it.
I hated Mama for buying that stupid card. At the same time I wanted to go to her that night and tell her everything. I was just so sick of trying to hide my baby. I figured maybe her heart might be soft, with it still being my birthday. But when I got up, I felt Imani kick me. It seemed like she was saying for me to shut up. It's not the right time. I couldn't shut up, though. So I lay down and pushed my face deep in the pillow.
When I be crying crazy like that, all these strange noises be coming out my mouth. They be coming from deep inside me from a place I don't even know, from a place I don't even want to know. I stayed right in my bed until I quieted down all by myself, until when I opened my mouth ain't nothing come out but my breath.
Who know, maybe I should've told Mama that night. I should've say something while my heart was soft, and maybe hers was soft, too. It would have been better that way, with me just saying it, flat out, instead of her seeing me like that the morning I was late for school.
Mama ain't say nothing. She just flew right at me and slapped me in the face. I was too clumsy and slow to get out the way of her hand. Next, she punched me right in the titties. I put my hands up so she couldn't hit me no more, and I backed up and fell on the bed. Mama started asking me questions she ain't even give me time to answer, and every time she ask one, she slapped me again.
What the hell wrong with you? What was you thinking about, doing this? Why you throw your life away? What you think your aunt going to think of you? What am I going to tell her? Why you ain't tell me? Why you ain't tell me? Why you ain't tell me?
It was like Mama to think what I done was all about her, like I done something to her. I couldn't hardly tell myself, but I couldn't say that to Mama. That wouldn't make no sense to her, so I rolled over and put my back to her. I wasn't thinking about her so much as I was thinking about my baby. I had to protect my baby.
That's why I think Mrs. Poole wrong with her stink breath. Because Imani loved me right then. I could feel it. I ain't have to wait for her to be born for her to love me. I ain't have to wait for her to be born to love her. She my baby.
Mama kept on asking and slapping. Who the father? What nigger you had the baby with? What's his name?
I ain't say nothing. I just curled myself up around my baby. I couldn't say his name to Mama. I couldn't even say it to myself.
Finally she ask me, without a slap, You happy now? Then she let me alone. She wasn't getting nothing out of me. She left the room and I got up and dressed real quick. I'd missed my school bus, but I could still take the city bus and not miss all of first period. I was relieved it was over, that Mama knew. She ain't really hurt me. I just wanted to get to school.
When I left the house, Mama was in her room. She ain't even come out, which was just fine with me. She was probably still sitting in there when the school nurse called her to tell her my water broke.
I ain't even know what it was. I was in my second-period math class with Mr. Crowley. He this white man who's all sucked-up looking and he got these brown teeth all piled on top of each other. He don't never leave the overhead projector where he be scribbling out problems and they solutions.
I felt like I had to go to the bathroom real bad and I could hardly hold it. I was waving my hand real wild, but Mr. Crowley ain't even look at me. He was explaining how to turn fractions into decimals and decimals into fractions. He finally called on me after I called out his name, and ask me to solve the problem. I told him I had to go to the lavatory, and you know what he had the nerve to tell me? I couldn't go. He had already give out two lavatory passes. I swear, that's the craziest thing I ever heard. He only give two bathroom passes a period because he think we be trying to go to the bathroom just to miss class. Maybe that's all right for boys, but don't he know what girls be having to do in the lavatory sometimes? Don't he think we might need more than two passes during class? I wasn't stutting Mr. Crowley and his rules just then. I got up and headed for the door. Soon as I started walking, I was dripping. I could feel it. By the time I made it out the door, I was starting to gush, and the lavatory was way at the end of the hall. Mr. Crowley was right behind me. He seen it, too. My sweat pants was stained dark. I was so embarrassed. Mr. Crowley grabbed me by the shoulders and ask me if I was all right. I told him I want to go to the lavatory, but he say he was taking me to see the nurse. I think he knew the baby was coming. I ain't want to go, but I knew I should, so he walked with me leaning on him and told me everything would be fine, and I was thinking he was wishing he had just give me a lavatory pass when I ask for one.
The nurse is this black lady. I had never even been in her office before, just past it. She called a ambulance. Then she phoned Mama and tell her to meet us at ECMC.
That's the county hospital. Some people don't like it because it's the welfare hospital, but it's all right with me. I was born there.
I wasn't really even scared until I heard the ambulance come up with that siren going. I ain't want to get in it, but the nurse say it was the best and safest way for me. She say she was going to be with me all the way. She was real calm. Her breath was even calm. It smelled like peppermint. She say she had three children and I would be fine. All the way to the hospital she sat next to me, patting my hand while the ambulance attendant ask me a bunch a questions about my prenatal care, how advanced my pregnancy was, when was my last period. I knew I ain't give the right answers by the way he was frowning.
The cramps I had the night before was back. They was harder and longer. The nurse told me to breathe, like I wasn't breathing or something. She ask how bad the pain was. I told her it wasn't that bad, and it wasn't.
Mama was there when I got to the hospital, looking real worried. I ain't know if she was worried because she hit me that morning and she thought these people would find out about it, or if she was really worried about me. When they wheeled me past her, I looked in her face. It looked like she was really worried about me. It looked like she been crying.
They took me in this cold room and I was all naked. There was nothing but this sheet over me. Some nurse come in and give me a shot. This doctor come and stood over me. He was from some other country. I don't know where, but he had a funny accent. He say they was going to take the baby out of me, just to be safe. I tell him I could take the pain, but he say they want to be safe. You're just a child, he say to me.
That's all I remember until after Imani was born. I don't know what they give me, but the next thing I know, it was dark outside and I was in this room with some other women with babies. Mama was sitting in a chair next to my bed, her arms folded on her chest, and she was staring at a television hung up on the wall. Jeopardy! was on. Mama ain't say nothing. She walked around the bed and took Imani out the little plastic crib they had her in. Mama handed her right to me.
I ain't know what to do. I just stared at her, feeling how light she was, looking to see who was in her face. It was only me I seen there, and when she poked one of her hands out the blanket, I seen them flat fingers like mine. I smiled.
Imani wasn't even her name then. Not official. It say Dawson, Girl on her ankle band. Eboni had give me that name. She got this baby book from a black card shop and it had that name in it. She was picking out names after she found out she was having a baby. She told me what Imani mean in some African language. Faith. I liked that.
It seem like Mama want to say something to me, but she ain't know what to say. She say I could get some ice chips, but I ain't want them. She say she needed to go home. She was tired. I told her that was all right, she could go. I had Imani.
Every time I go to Mrs. Poole class, I be learning more of what to do with Imani. I know that after the bottle, I got to burp her. Imani like that, I think. She like me patting her back. Her head be wobbling all around. I hold her head like Mrs. Poole say, but I think my baby just plain nosey. She be looking all around when I be burping her, even at two in the morning, like there's something to see.
Just last week when we was up, Imani was looking around when she heard these gunshots. Then she got real still. It was like she was holding her breath. I couldn't feel no breath coming from her. All I could feel was her heart beating fast fast. Mrs. Poole done taught us how to do CPR, but all I could think to do was give her a good shake. I knew I ain't need to when she turned and looked at me like she had a question. I felt a breath come out of her then. Hot and wet in my face. I heard the shots, too. We was on the couch, but I stopped right then patting her back and got down on the floor. I don't even want to sound dramatic, like I dove down on the floor or something. They be shooting around here sometimes at night. But the shots sound like they did that night. Like they a few blocks over. They was still loud, so I slid off onto the floor. I ain't want to scare Imani.
Mrs. Poole would probably say I'm crazy. Ain't no way a baby know what gunshots is. I ain't saying Imani knew, but that kind of scared me. After she let out a good burp, I laid Imani out on the floor and finished up the routine. I changed her diaper, wiped her off with one of them moist towelettes, and greased and powdered her butt. She got real pretty skin. She ain't had no diaper rash or nothing yet, and I'm going see to it she don't.
Imani act like she still ain't want to go to sleep that night. She wasn't fussing or nothing, but I guess she wasn't ready to go on off to sleep. So I laid down on the floor and put her up on my chest.
Mrs. Poole say that can calm a baby down. The baby hear your heart beating like when they was inside you. So I put her on my heart and sung her this song me and Eboni used to sing when we was girls. It's a hand-clapping song, but Imani can't do the clapping part yet, so I ain't do the clapping part. I don't know why I sung it, but it just come to my mind, and I sung it real soft. I sung it like a whisper.
Say, Say, Say--
I am a pretty little
As pretty as pretty can
And all the boys around my block are crazy over
My boyfriend's name is
He comes from A-la-
With a pickle on his nose and a cherry on his toes
That's why my story goes.