Between Women and Ghosts  {EXCERPT}

All the women have nightmares.  

We never discuss these nightmares. 

We just meet in the kitchen in the middle of the night.  

We drink cold water from clear glasses and pretend that the heat alone has awaken us.  

We smile and raise our glasses for nothing can frighten us.

Warrior women we are.   

But there is a question rotting inside of us all.       

What about when the boogie man has your face? Your smile? Your skin? 

What if instead of running, you want him to get you? 

                        *

“Don’t ever tell nobody.”

“I promise mama, I won’t,” I plead with my toes crossed inside of my white K-Swiss.  

“Not even your brother, ya hear me? This grown folks talk and I shouldn’t even be telling you.”

“Yes ma’am.” She narrows her eyes, tilts her head upwards and looks down at me.

“There was a trial, and he went on the stand and lied.  A bold-faced lie. Even his sister helped him lie.  They said he wasn’t the daddy.  Said he barely knew my grandmother. Sat right across from her in that courtroom and lied.  Said he ain’t neva touched her, do ya hear me? Said he wasn’t the baby’s daddy.  And you already know they gone believe him over her.”

“So Granny really don’t have a daddy”

“Nawl.”

“Mommy?” I hesitated.

“Yes?”

“Do you have a daddy?”    

*

 

I always felt lucky to have a daddy.  I knew everyone didn’t have one.  Most of my cousins didn’t. I thought that my achievements worked in direct correlation with having a dad.  I worked hard, therefore I had a father.  It was that simple in my mind.  Maybe if the others had been more polite, chewed with their mouths closed said please and thank you, they could have what I had.  Because daddies weren't like mommies, they had the choice to leave if they weren’t happy or if you didn’t cater to them and their needs.  Mommies are obligated to stay so you don’t have to work hard to appease them.  

*

 

My grandmother still had her father’s last name, even though he didn’t want her.  She knew him, and she would see him around the village that she grew up in.  Always with a different woman, always with a bottle in his hand, always beautiful.  

One day, when she was around 8 or 9 or 11, walking home from the local school with her friend Jacob, kicking rocks down the paved road.  She saw her daddy walking towards them from the opposite direction.  She was excited to see him because every time they crossed paths, he would give her a quarter or candy, or whatever he could find in his pockets. She took off running towards him, Jacob sprinted ahead of her and beat her to him.  Her father gave Jacob the quarter.  

“Hey!” she panted with her body slumped over, hands resting heavy above her knees.

“I only got one. Y’all share dat,” he said as he began to carry on.  

“I ain’t sharing with her,” Jacob shouted back as he ran through the ditch.  

“Boy you better share with your sister,” he shouted in a jovial paternal tone.  

He then reached down in his pants and pulled out a small chocolate.  She clenched it in her palm with a fist.  It melted in her hand before she made it to her porch.  She licked every finger clean hoping to hold a small piece of him inside of her.  

 

*

My mother was the fourth child formed in her mother’s womb, and the first to be born in Houston.  My grandmother had birthed three children in Shreveport and had given two of them away to a family member, the first child and the third child, both boys.  She would live in small apartment in Fifth-Ward, just north of the city.  Every morning she would encounter a tall man with skin like midnight as she walked to the bus stop before dawn for work.  Sometimes all she could see were his teeth and his eyes.  This man would soon become the father of my mother.  If I calculate correctly, the child preceding my mother was born 1.5 years prior, but we must include 9 months of gestation, this leaves 9 months of potential courting but we must subtract the time it took her to relocate from Louisiana.  I don’t believe she knew this midnight man for more than 6 months before a love child was conceived.  By the time my mother was born, he would have already departed, and I don’t think it took him 9 months to leave.  Moved from that street.  Moved from the neighborhood.  Moved from the state.  Never to be seen again.  My grandmother is fond of my mother in comparison to some of the others, and I believe this may be because she loved her father.  A guy named Joe.  I wonder if she loved him at any moment. Was there love for a single moment or many moments? Did she at least love him in the moment that he released a piece of himself inside of her that she would hold forever?  My mother was born at night.  Her skin shone like a polished plum.  She is said to resemble her father.  He is said to be beautiful and I am told that he knew this to be true.  But we have never seen a photo of him.  Only the stories my mother’s mother chooses to share at random moments, like when my mom makes smacking noises as she eats by pressing her tongue to the roof of her mouth, sucking all the flavor back to her throat and abruptly releasing the suction, relishing ever bite.  Her mother would say to her, “Chile, you shole is noisy. Yo daddy used to make all dat noise when he ate.”  Or when she would criticize my mother for having one flat foot, “You ain’t get that from me. You got that from your daddy’s people.”  It was as if she reveled in the power of having been the only one to know him.  It was if she dared her to ask a question about him.  But my mother wouldn’t dare satisfy her by inquiring.      

 I wonder if he held her hand as they walked to the bus stop each morning.  Or if he ever walked by their apartment after my mother was born and peered into the window, yearning to hold the child that will never quite learn to allow a man to hold her, in fear that he would drop her.  Drop her on the soft spot of her crown and break her into irreparable pieces.  But doesn’t she know that she’s already broken?  Broken in ways that my father may or may not have been equipped to repair.  I wonder if he even tried.

 

*

 

My mother graduated high school in June of 1974.  In November of 1974 she married my father.  Not for love, not for companionship, but merely to escape her mother’s overpopulated two bedroom hut.  My mother had sex for the first time in November of 1974.  She didn’t know how to be a woman, nor wife, but she assumed that if she did the exact opposite of everything her mother ever did, her life had possibility.  Her high school diploma was dependent on attendance alone.  She didn’t know much, but she knew that men only wanted sex and sex equates to babies, and she wanted all of her children to have the same last name, and not the name of the man who had denounced her mother, the name of her husband, so she married my father.  She would never discuss this with me, or anything that surveyed her interiority, but I believe she was looking for her dad in my nineteen year old father.  But he was a boy.  And he would fail miserably.     

 

*

 

“Do you ever want to meet him?” I would ask frequently and sporadically. 

“Who?” Always confused.  But she knew. 

“Your father.”

“Why would I want to see him?”  My mother would answer with a confidence that bewildered me until I was old enough to view her as a human, an entity separate from me, then I mourned for her.  Her inability to even speak of this vanished being.  

“who?” she would say as if he wasn’t often there, looming amongst us as she denigrated everything that possessed the appendage of a penis, including her sons.      

 

*

 

I know my father well.  I see him every morning in my reflection.  I don’t like mirrors.  I have very few in my home, and the ones that are present were gifts from others who believed that I needed more mirrors in my home.  He’s there when I pull my hair back, when I go to remove hereditary incessant hang nails, and even worse when I smile. In this way he owns a piece of my happiness.      

 

*

 

I felt like I was swimming.  Submerged in water.  All of my limbs moving in opposing directions working to propel me upwards.  I could hear muffled sounds.  They sounded far away like someone screaming with a pillow over their face.  I could hear someone saying my name.  The sound was distant but the tone was urgent.  I emerged from the water.  I heard my name again, this time clearly.  I opened my eyes and saw tightly coiled hair narrowing downwards along smooth pale skin.  I was lying on my father’s chest.  

“Are you ok?” he asked anxiously.  “You were panting in your sleep.”

It turns out it was my lover, not my father.  It turns out I wasn’t swimming, I was drowning.  

 

*

 

One evening in the house I grew up in, with both of my parents until my father left, I was sitting on the floor of the master bathroom.  My mother was soaking in the tub.  Soaking like the chicken in the kitchen sink that she asked me to take out the freezer when I got home from school.  Thawing.  Melting off the bitter cold exterior she would wear to work each day.  Here, every night, she would soak and soften.  I would sit beside the tub and absorb her words and she would listen to my endless chatter.  My stories, my lies, my laughter.  But this night she would invite someone else into our seance.  She asked me to hand her the towel.  She dried her finger pads.  She asked me to hand her the cordless phone.  She asked me to hand her the small white piece of paper that looked like trash, as if she crumpled it up to throw it away and then decided it was valuable, and unraveled it, then crumpled it again.  Slowly, she unfolded the paper and began dialing a number.  She put the phone to her ear and looked me in my eyes.  She looked at me as if she wanted me to help her.  I had never seen her so vulnerable.  I was only 8, or 9, or maybe 11.  This scared me. Then I realized I was staring back at her, without blinking, without breathing.  I mouthed “who is that?” and she just stared at me, waiting for someone to pick up on the other end.  I think she was holding her breath too.  After she said hello I put my ear up to the receiver to see if it was a voice I recognized.  She shooed me away with her hand.  She spoke in a tone that was familiar.  It was the same tone she used when she spoke to a representative at the electrical company, and the same tone she used when we would run into our neighbors while walking the dog, it was the same tone she used with my teachers at open house.  I listen to her attentively and try to guess what the person on the other end of receiver could be saying.  

        “Yes, I have three children. How many do you have?”

            *fake laughter

        “Where do you live?”

        “Oh really?”

        “I would love to come visit.”

        “Ohhhhh. Really? Wow! That’s interesting.”

            *fake laughter

        “How do you spell your last name?”

        “Oh ok. Right. Exactly.”

            *more fake laughter 

        “Blah Blah Blah.”

        “It was so nice speaking to you.  Take care.”

Me:        Mama, who was that?

Mama:     My daddy

Me:        What did he say?

Mama:    Chile, nothing. Full of shit.

She then throws the phone to the floor where I’m sitting.  She runs more hot water into her bath to cover the cold.  She settles her body lower into the tub until only her head is above water.  She had just spoken to her father, with whom she is said to share the same skin and smile, as if she were talking to the post man.  But then again I guess she is better acquainted with the post man.  The post man knows my name, and our address, and he knows that I like to pour salt on the snails on our patio, and that our dog’s name is Scruffy, and he knows what my mom looks like.  Her father knows none of these things.

We have never spoke about Joe again. 

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