Albatross

It would be chocolate, velvety and smooth. The ice cream would be chocolate and ice cold but would go down soft and comfortable. Though not my favorite, it would be mine, and it would do. After I had my fill I would take it to Brooke–there, I would taunt. He does exist.

Her father lived with her and loved her plainly, but I didn’t know that then.

You. Promised.

When you made the statement the first time I could hear the truth in your words–I mailed you a cake. There was no humor in your voice, no indication of the bodies surrounding you, laughing at your mischief and my naïveté. They, those that surrounded you and knew about the little speck of dirt that you could not out, must have laughed heartily. You must have turned to them with your cheshire cat grin and reveled in their laughter. You must have heard my voice made small by immaturity and youth and you must have held your own laughter back for so long it hurt.

I did not hear the laughter then. I only heard your promise.

With the innocence of a child I took your words and tucked them near. They were, after all, a promise and promises were kept.

On the first day I tumbled from the bus barely aware of a scraped knee. The mailbox gleamed like an oasis in the heat of a desert. There was nothing there, and my mother confirmed that no gift had arrived. She did not tell me that it would never come. She has never said that.

She has never called you what you are.

I wondered after the third day of nothing whether or not the box was too small. The house was tiny, little more than a box itself. I imagined your house would be grandiose and I would have a room of my own there, should I ever be invited to visit. I hoped that the decadence of a cake from you would be placed in a box that may not have been worthy to receive it.

I waited by that insufficient box for weeks. At one point, briefly, I blamed the box.

The loss of my innocence was private and wrought with despair. At an indeterminate point after my birthday hope left like a vapor. The cake that you promised would not come.

Your words ate at me as an acid until all that was left was the rawness and the realization that not all promises are kept.

I took your name from you then. You were daddy before. Unearned merit and unquestioned love. You lost both.

An eye for an eye.

I spit out your name—Jonathan—like poison on my tongue. I do not hold it too closely and for too long.

Jonathan—when I was ten you picked me up for Christmas. I was homesick and wanted to speak with my mother. I begged to call. You dragged me across the line into Florida and I asked if we could see my dad’s family—he earned what you lost, you see—because they had his blood and in that way I could be close to someone who loved me.

You said I could call soon. You did not promise, then.

You gave me $50. More money than I had ever seen. Because it was Christmas I wanted to buy you a gift. It did not occur to me that you would not wish to receive it.

In the way of macaroni necklaces and trees made of sloppy handprints I assumed that you would love anything I chose.

I did not know then that love was a promise that you would not keep.

From the bins of TJMaxx I chose cheap cologne. It smelled of pine straw and slow death, but I selected it for you.

Your face froze when you unwrapped it. You met your wife’s eyes and you said, “thanks” through gritted teeth. My heart sank and my cheeks burned.

Later, as we prepared to leave, I saw the cologne left on a dresser, already forgotten. Cast aside and awkward.

Something else you did not want.

I did not cry for you when you lost your mother. I considered it. I remembered her as a one-dimensional figure. One who refused to properly name me. In her nasally voice she called me “Reenie” and her voice did not harbor love for me.

She, like you, could not pretend. In this way I suppose we are kindred.

In the recesses of my brain I wondered if I hated you. I wished I could. Every good story needs a villain. But you are not my villain. You do not belong to me.

Still, I could not cry. I did not know her.

I do not know you.

I shed you like an ill fitting skin when I was one and twenty. The words tangle now in my mind, but you did not question them then or now. I wonder what you must have said. I wonder what words you twisted to form me. I wonder how I appear in your recollection.

I wonder if they still find you laughing. Do you remember that cake?

You carry me as your albatross. When we pass invisibly through each other’s lives we react differently. I recoil. I know your sting and I do not wish to relive you.

You bend under the weight of your burden. Your mouth forms stories and you create an “us.” Promises not meant to be kept creep from your tongue because you have not yet learned to keep them at bay.

My mother has hope when she rings. “Nicole,” she calls me, and I hear her words dripping with honeyed love. “He wants to reach out. Let him.”

“Jherine,” my dad says, his words a smooth salve to the pierce of another lie from you that only I can see, “you owe it to him to hear him out.” I am angry with you for lying to them. I can bear the weight of your lies—my shoulders were made strong by them. They should not have to, and I want to protect them from you, as I protected my daughters. To them you do not exist.

Shhh. I would not wish for you to make a liar of me.

You reach across the years and these are your words:

The Saine family reunion

is being held in Dayton

on the weekend of July 21

please put it on your calendar.

Nine years of nothing. You reach out and you cast across a mass message. It reads as a curse, your mass message. I chuckle humorlessly and I type, “I will respond to this soon.”

I want to create words for you, to construct you. I want you to see yourself in whole and in truth. I am no longer seven or ten or any other age that found me cowering under the weight of being unloved by you. I am who I grew into naturally, but not in spite of you. Because of you.

And you. Unnamed to my children, sad stooped figure of my recollection, caught interminably in his own web of broken promises. Can you remember them all?

You are as you always were. A man as good as his word.

Invocation: Pretty For a Black Girl

HERE words form haphazardly, and they are the jagged breath of a dying man. The last one will spray onto the page and its stain will linger, but it will seem that there was more to say. They will be crude and unvarnished and raw, but they will be.
When God was still alive I would have petitioned a favor.

Help me, I would have begged. I would have swallowed thickly and my throat would have ached and I would have felt a deep and abiding embarrassment in my chest; it would have seized my heart and for a moment I would see clearly my mortality, and I would have pressed any negative thoughts past that which I thought God would have seen. My link to hm was tenuous, torn asunder by the mere thought of wrongdoing.

Help me. I would have begged. Please help me write.

I would stare blankly at the page then and wonder if the first words should be a dedication to him, God, if I might be smote to the depths of hell if I did not. But the words I gave before were all that I could muster, and there was never room or word enough for God.

I did not receive the favor. My prayer was too low in my chest, or perhaps he was too high to reach, or, more likely, he had already died. My words, secular though they were, were my own.

I would invoke the muse, had I one. Move in me muse. Sing in me muse. My mind would travel to paradise and I would be lost in it and I would imagine them, the words, erupting like spring blossoms or spilling out like awakened virgins, but when the pen pressed against the page the muse would have gone, or she would have sighed into another missive dedicated to the boy whose eyes locked with mine or the dance that I wouldn’t be allowed to attend.

Here instead I remember yesterday and tomorrow and I grab the words that I know and mourn the loss of ones long gone and yearn desperately for the arrival of ones that will free me.

I will look in the pages beyond and see my body and myself and I will be pretty and intelligent and whole and pretty.

Lula

When I close my eyes I will fall into the cracks, the places where I do not exist and you do not exist. The place that traps me and keeps me and when it spits me out I do not remember.
Today you wear the sweater that you said I knitted. You pressed it into my hands and you said that you hadn’t washed it since I last mended it and it felt rough and unfamiliar in my hands and besides the color was horrific–surely I wouldn’t out you in that fast red–but I held it to me because your eyes were large and wet and it was what you needed.
You call me Mama.
I reply.
I don’t feel like Mama.
When you walk in your eyes hold hope and even though I do not know you I smile. You return the smile and I marvel at your beauty.
Mama,” you say. Your mouth moves but your words escape you and you swallow before you say it. You stare into my eyes, gripping something that you seem to have lost. I’m afraid that you will break if I look away.
Mama,” you name me.
You tell me my name (Lula Tabitha), and you brought the baby to see me.
She is a beautiful baby and I don’t know her and I don’t know you.
But there is a space in my brain that feels like yours.
You said it was alright that I forgot. But this time I’m writing it down, and if I stay awake I will see you clearly.
I don’t know where I go, but it is lonely here, in my brain, in the space that I think belongs to you.

**************************************************
He wasn’t him (what was his name? Joe or Jim or something.), but he looked like him. He was an asshole. He deserved to know.
**************************************************
You came again and you smelled of powder. The baby was too cold; she didn’t have socks or shoes. Just a ragged blanket with faded bears.
You should have someone, a mama or someone, knitting that baby a blanket.
You called me “Mama,” again, sadder than the first time.
When you left you kissed me harder and I pulled you into a hug that I could feel in my bones. They ache, but when you are here I forget that. I felt you in my bones, and the place in my brain that waits for you.
***************************************************
I put my keys right there. I know I set them right there. I’m here waiting for him to pull the car around. Someone wrote here already.

***************************************************
Cheryl. You didn’t come today, but I remember: Cheryl and Jherine. I feel your smile in my soul.
I woke up, as if from a long sleep I awakened even though my eyes have been open all this time. I remembered you and I cried.
You called me Mama.
***************************************************
I remember that sweater! I have knots in my bones that let me know I made thousands.
I won’t remember anything after I sleep.
**************************************************
Cheryl. I love you.
Mama.

unconditional

She held on to her shame for an age, long past the moment where they could smile about her foolishness, long past the point where it might come up in conversation organically. She holds it beneath the surface, pressing it down into the recesses of her mind.
When it, the shame, comes again she picks at it like a scab. Perhaps it will flake off and heal over and she might be free of it.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about Jonathan save for him being there and her being here, and there being preferable to here no matter the circumstances. She tries to rifle through her brain, pinpointing the moment that she told herself the lie large enough to believe—he will be there, he will come—but she can’t. He held the title Daddy (noun, not to be confused with Father, bearer of discipline and occasional smiles but mostly apathy and Ask Your Mothers; Daddy, ever present bearer of love and presence) without earning it, but she did not consider.
She considered with childlike naiveté Terence in the spaces made large by Daddy’s absence; bringer of piggyback rides and games, bicycles and endless slides in the park.
But Daddy was taken and she couldn’t place him and he was Terence, the all encompassing being.
Daddy was the shadow.
Still she waited with her childlike innocence, remembering the smile in his voice as he promised her for the third year, “I sent your cake. It’s in the mail.”
A lump forms in her throat in the space of the years—not for want of the cake. No. It would have likely spoiled and he wouldn’t know her favorite besides.
No, the lump forms because of the perfect nature of hindsight and she was eight that last time and she wonders how many birthdays and moments by the mailbox she could have saved if she had only known to look past unearned titles.
She waited in the heat of the day for the cake. Not the cake. But the being that sent the cake. Perhaps he would be. . .what?
Piggyback rides and games, bicycles and endless slides, sound discipline that sent her to bed crying forgotten in the morning with tickles—those were taken.
But the title, Daddy, it was taken also.
She waited for an age.
In her memory it was winter when she discovered more than the cake’s absence.
Daddy felt thick and sickly on her tongue and she tried but she could not make it fit.
He became “you.”

How are You? I called You.

Daddy was ruined, made into shadows and lost things and promises not kept.
She tried Daddy on Terence once, but it was an ill-fitting suit and already destroyed.
Dad was too soft and distant, and late.
She doesn’t remember now where it came from, Pops, only the way it felt. A warm sweater. Safety. Home.
Pops (noun. unconditional. love.)
Long after Daddy dies she considers revealing its death. She wants to apologize for the time wasted. She wants to explain but the words do not exist. Pops did not fill the space that Jonathan left.
It was not Jonathan’s to leave.
But she does not have the words and so she says nothing, remembering now and again her shame, the time she wasted.
They are surrounded by family that she doesn’t care to know when it sloughs off and leaves her, in the midst of unfamiliar relatives and the scent of Alabama.
“You look like your dad,” unremarkable relative remarks, forgetting for a moment, or perhaps relative never knew. She smiles gratefully and her shame is released.
Pops, and I know,” she replies.