On the Other Side
My father gave me one thing in this life: a brown-skinned Rainbow Brite doll. When I was a kid sometimes I would get jealous of the doll and pull out her black yarn hair in chunkfuls. Even a silly doll had more life to her hair than me. Still, I feel something falling comfortably to the base of my belly like raked leaves to know she is there in the suitcase, wedged between my Discman and my Source magazine collection.
I remember the day my father brought me the doll. I was six and it was the fourth time I had ever seen him. Except it wasn’t Rainbow Brite, it was her black sidekick, the girl in all the purple and silver. I don’t remember her name but it was nothing catchy like Rainbow Brite or Jem or She-ra. I called her Miss Moonpie. I poured her cups of real tea from Mother’s good china. I would hold the cup to her pink puckered mouth until the light-brown liquid ran down the front of her snazzy, glittering jumpsuit. I was thirteen the last time I did that.
Mother and I are a people chock-full of omens. The night I was born, my father’s real wife and kids were en route to Canada from Jamaica. It had been my father and mother up until that point, like a true-true couple. His wife called during Mother’s third hour of labor—surprise, the papers came in early, we’ll be there in 12 hours instead of next month. My father had said nothing for maybe an hour, just held my mother’s hand as she rocked and swayed like I was a hymn and not a stubborn rock of a child, her fat rolling and shaking, me in her belly hidden behind all her body. Finally, he had kissed the top her sweating head, squeezed her hand one more time like it were a rabbit foot and not the hand of a woman, told her, and left the hospital. I stayed locked inside of her for another 26 hours. I think this is why another baby won’t stick inside Mother: between me and my father, everything has been scraped straight out of her.
So because Mother and I came into each other’s lives on such terrible terms I am not surprised when the radio announces that Biggie Smalls has been shot dead, on the very day I’m going to live with my father. Like this is a true ending for her and I, because we would fight over Biggie all the time. Mother yelling at me in her thick accent at least once a week, slipping into Hungarian like her voice got lost in the wrong country —turn off that nonsense, you are not American, you are not urban, you are Jamaican and Hungarian and Canadian, you can listen to good music from your people or nothing, enhchhhh! Mother can twist that sound in her throat like the phlegm is coming up from her ass-crack. It’s like wet chains rubbing up against asphalt. She only likes reggae and can stomach a little Top 40.
I can only bring one suitcase so Mother makes it the big one, the green and white tweed on three broken wheels kept shrouded in black plastic in the back of the garage. Mother brought it with her from Hungary all those years ago: it’s there next to her in the solemn, straight-faced picture of her at the airport on her way to Vancouver. In the picture she is young, as fat as she is now and gripping her Hungarian passport in one hand, holding a whip of blond hair from her cheek with the other. The picture lives stuck to our fridge door with a Save-on-Foods price club magnet. I look at it every time I open the freezer, locking eyes with my mother as she was at eighteen. I wonder if the teenager in the picture knows the black girl slamming the fridge open and shut is her daughter.
The suitcase smells nothing like Mother, who is always creamed and powdered. It smells like old fruit and long-dead hairspray and is bursting with cast off bits of cloth from Mother’s sewing. I look at the split case and think of how I feel inside my skin: musty, brimming with trash, too full. A good washing could scrub my skin right off. The weirdness of it all—the guts of my life spread on my bedroom’s green carpet, Mother downstairs drumming her red acrylics on the kitchen table, the youth court officer waiting by the front door—makes me spit up a laugh.
“You’ll still be Maximilian’s Godmother.” Maxine stands in the doorway rubbing her belly. She is a streak of creamy black skin and neon extensions and Puma high tops.
“He’s scared,” Maxine looks down to her fattening stomach. “I can tell by the way he’s kicking. He knows you’re leaving me.”
“You’ll still be my best friend,” I say this too soft for her to hear.
I imagine Maximilian on the inside, half-done and swimming happily in Maxine’s warmth, Maxine’s palm talking to his cheek or collarbone or backside through the border of her body. I was there the first time he kicked, riding with Maxine in the back of the 321 on the way home from school. She had just begun to show. Her mom and dad had come to school that afternoon to meet with Father Jeffries and discuss Maxine’s future at Our Lady of Perpetual Help High School. Maxine had been quiet on the bus, staring out the window with one braid pressed to her mouth. Then she turned to me with her brown eyes wide, mascara clotting her lashes. She gripped my hand and pressed it to her small, hard pouch. I felt nothing, until a stone fluttered against the crease that joined my fingers to my palm. We caught each other’s eyes and laughed like maniacs the rest of the bus ride.
Maxine is not supposed to be here as I pack for my new life. She is my bad influence and I, hers—but Mother relented at the last minute, of course; she always liked Maxine, even after Maxine’s belly had seemed to swell overnight. Everyone at Our Lady knew what it meant when a girl began wearing her blouse untucked, shirttails flapping over the waist of the school kilt. While the others ran their mouths, Mother would still sit Maxine at our kitchen table, her painted mouth curved into that half-smile she does when she’s thinking, her eyes hungry on my best friend as Maxine talked. I would pretend not to watch as Mother soaked in the gun-shot staccato of Maxine’s thick, twining Jamaican accent, un-shook after six years in Canada. Maxine would often forget herself and allow the patois to surface, the cadence of her voice entering me like hot tea. I knew Mother was searching for the sound of my father in each word Maxine spoke, looking at her like she was memorizing each curve and shadow of her face.
I don’t know if this is the last time I will see Maxine. It might be, so I am taking care to memorize her as she is now: leaning against my doorjamb, six months pregnant with my godson, tears snailing tracks through her face powder. I will not forget her nail polish, grey-blue with sparkles and chipped. I take two steps and we hug fiercely.
The suitcase is deflated and lonely next to me in the backseat – not in the trunk. I learnt long ago from Mother to “keep your things where you can feel them.” So I never carry much. Up until Maxine introduced me to knock-off vinyl purses in ninth grade, I kept all I needed in a camouflage-print wallet in the back pocket of corduroys or cargo pants—clothes from Mother’s bottom drawer that had been fitted on her at her thinnest but hung off my hips. Those pants held everything I needed, whether it came from my allowance or was lifted from someone else’s locker. The first time they called Mother to school, she had sat perched like an owl in the thin chair of Father Jefferies’ office, scared to put her full weight down, her home care assistant’s uniform starched and stretched across her thighs. In front of her on Father Jefferies’ desk was a small, crumpled pile: two lighters, an American twenty, a tube of lip-gloss, a deck of cards, and a silver broken heart chain. She stared at the pile as Father Jefferies spoke.
“We do these non-uniform days so students can express themselves – but Eva really takes advantage.” Father cleared his throat then. “She ruins it for the others. Things go missing when she’s around.”
I spent the suspension like I spent all the others: rummaging through Mother’s “memory box” in the back of her closet, the old pictures, cards, and notes from the single year my parents spent as a couple. There is one picture… each time I see it, I think of the way we genuflect before sitting down for monthly Mass at school. How we make our bodies curve to respect the cross. Mother and my father sit on a couch in a house I have never been to, their bodies leaning into one another as the couch cushion caves to Mother’s weight. My father has an arm draped around Mother’s shoulders. I can’t tell how tall he is but he looks small next to Mother’s width. He is blacker than Maxine and has a thick, round afro. Mother smiles at the camera while my father smiles at her. It’s the way my father looks at her that holds me—in my fifteen years, I’ve never seen a face look at Mother with so much light.
The youth court officer is an Indian woman. She sits in the passenger seat while Mother drives, as slight and dark as Mother is fat and pale. She turns every now and then to look at me and smile like hydraulics are lifting the sides of her mouth. There is fuchsia lipstick on her front teeth and her eyes are not included in her smile. She reminds me a little of the first shop owner who caught me stealing; a pretty Punjabi woman in a red sari too beautiful for a Surrey dollar store. Maxine wasn’t pregnant then but she still had a gut that we worked shamelessly, shoving candy bars and perfume in the space where her belly stuck out like a rain awning. The red sari woman watched through shut lips as we drifted through the aisles before coming to the counter with a single can of pop. She let us pay before letting loose a flock of insults in both English and Punjabi that made my skin prickle with fury. Most of it I didn’t understand, but from the brown girls living in our cul-de-sac I knew she called us “bitch” at least three times. We had walked backwards out the double doors screaming back at her, Maxine hurtling a dozen grenades of patois straight from the soles of her feet. The woman’s mouth hung open, as if it sat on broken hinges. I could almost see the words striking her body, the sari redder and dripping.
I show my teeth back to the youth court officer, spread my lips in what I hope is more snarl than anything else. The woman collapses her mouth and turns to Mother.
“All her papers are in order, right?” Her voice is high. It shakes. I laugh loudly at the stupid question. Adults nervous in my presence amuses me.
“Right there in your hands.” Mother is nervous too. From the way she grips the wheel I know she wants a cigarette. She only picked up smoking three months ago to stop eating and she still treats each cigarette like she wishes it were drenched in sauce.
I’m here in this backseat on this stretch of highway from Surrey to East Vancouver because my father is supposed to save me; I am now his turn. I have not seen him since I was nine, so the face in Mother’s memory box is the only face I know. I look out the rear window but Surrey is already gone. East Vancouver is another world, somewhere to visit, not a home. On the news it’s always footage of East Van when they talk about meth clinics or prostitution or weed activists. When they’re talking about car theft and gang wars, they show Surrey. I can always recognize the block. I think Mother is sending me from the frying pan to the fire.
This car ride is everything joyriding is not. Joyriding feels like my body is made of a thousand loose-leaf sheets ripped and on the wind. Each time I run out the back sliding door well past midnight and slide into the backseat of some car next to Maxine, I feel possible.
“Where we going?”
“Dunno. We just going.”
“Who’s Delano’s friend?” This is what I always ask, the only words I have room to hold in my mouth before letting the wind and the bassline of the music rock my body to silence. Maxine has been dealing with Delano for as long as I’ve known her, but he brings a different friend and a different car each time we joyride. I don’t know car types, just that Delano’s cars are always nice. The fabric feels good against the back of my thighs. I can lift and extend my knees! The backseat makes me feel like I am held in parentheses, and my tongue can take on any voice.
Delano plays Buju Banton on nights when he has real nice cars, ones shaped like bullets with two doors and insides that smell like no body had ever been there before the four of us. He smokes first, then passes to the friend who passes to Maxine and finally me.
“Take shallow breaths,” Maxine always whispers. I have an island father but I’m not Jamaican Jamaican and Maxine doesn’t want me embarrassing her or myself by hacking up in the backseat.
The music is always loud enough to leave me responsible for nothing but my own imagination. Delano drives, moving further and further from my corner unit in the cul-de-sac and Mother, into the eye of the Surrey road and my peaking high. We usually ride all night, Delano sometimes making stops into apartment buildings with his friend. Maxine and I sit waiting, giggling a little, feeling awkward in someone else’s car. We breathe into the silence, Maxine sometimes reaching to touch the back of my hand, or pull a braid off my face. I never ask what Delano is doing in these buildings.
I would have paid closer attention to how the air felt on my skin had I known the last ride would be the last. I would’ve tried to remember what Surrey felt like with nothing but me and Maxine and Delano and his friend inside of it. I would have remembered so I could write about it years from now. I might be old like Mother before I have something belong to me and me alone again.
That last night, Mother was angry and tired. Too much nicotine and her no-sugar diet. The fridge was full of beige food sectioned into labeled Tupperware containers. It was her last graveyard shift in a run of seven.
“It’d be nice if the place was clean when I came in, edesem.” My little sweet. This is all the Hungarian I know; Mother has called me this since I was a baby. The words mean nothing, just familiar sounds that mean she wants me to listen.
“It’s already late. I can clean in the morning.”
“But you won’t.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes I do. You won’t clean, edesem.”
“Then fine. I won’t.”
She had looked at me hard for a moment. She was tired. Her eyes were rimmed with purple eyeliner to hide the red lids. She smelled good, her usual mix of Chanel No. 5 and Chantilly Lace. In my head I knew what she was saying to herself. Why are you so bad, edesem? Why do you talk back? Why are you always in and out of trouble? If she ever asks me these questions out loud, I don’t know what I’ll say.
She turned from me without another word, slamming the door behind her.
I know how to listen to the sound of the night in my apartment unit, how to hear the pitch blackest of sounds through the refrigerator’s hum and the TV in Mother’s room upstairs. That night waiting for Delano was the same as all the others. I listened through the dark. Delano eased the car into the cul-de-sac. Maxine was a shadow in the backseat. Now that she was beginning to get real pregnant, Delano was bringing cars that were bigger on the inside. This one was white and had enough room for four people in the back. I bit my lip to swallow my jealousy at how he catered to Maxine.
“Where we going?”
“Seattle.” There was a grin on Maxine’s face. It took a moment for me to hear what she said, expecting her usual response: Dunno, we just going. She handed me a plastic bag. It held heavy, silver material that ran like water over my palms.
“You can kill it in this dress,” Maxine said. “Me, I won’t be wearing that no time soon. I was always too fat for it anyway.”
“Maxine we can’t go across the border.” I was trying to keep my voice low, so Delano and his friend wouldn’t hear my brewing panic. Delano’s eyes flickered up to the rearview mirror, meeting mine for a moment.
Maxine sucked her teeth. “Why not?”
“Whose car is this?”
She jerked her chin towards the front seat. “Delano and his friend aren’t. They have notes saying they can take us across. You just got to sign your mom’s signature.”
I sunk into the fabric of the backseat, silent. I saw then that Maxine was dressed up. She had on her favorite lipstick, Wet & Wild #32, magenta across her lips. Her profile shone in the streetlights. One side of her head was cornrowed, interlaced with pink hair extensions. My hair was almost the same, done by Maxine the week before. Except my cornrows had no added extensions, my hair already landing to the middle of my back. My stomach opened and shut the whole way to the border. I wondered what it felt like for Maxine, to be nervous and have a baby inside. Delano and his friend were polite, keeping their eyes ahead and turning up the music like it could cover me as I put Maxine’s dress on. It bagged around the chest and smelled like her skin. It would have been short even on Maxine who comes up to my eyebrows. Sitting in the car, I had to tug the hem to cover my ass.
I can’t remember the name of the friend that night, but he had a name I liked in my mouth. Lacey. Mel. Sekou…some name with just enough bone to make me think of lace and nicotine. We drove to Seattle, separated from Surrey by a 120-mile stretch of I-5. Delano and his friend took me and Maxine to an all-ages club that night. The sweating ceiling drizzled the collective funk of the place back on to our heads. The weight of each of my braids felt like a long fist, a comforting knock that I flipped and tossed with my head and shoulders all night. At some point in the middle of the dance floor, I forgot to be afraid. The music pounded in my ears; I couldn’t even feel my body.
Delano’s friend held me close for every song and I didn’t mind. His hands on me felt the same as his name in my mouth. I watched Maxine and Delano dance, he behind her, running his hands up and down her round belly. She was laughing and looking down at her stomach. She was talking to Maximilian, telling him to listen to the music.
I got scared again on the drive back home. I could still beat Mother home by an hour. Maxine and Delano’s friend switched seats for the ride back: despite all the room in the back I was practically in his lap, his fingers like mitts on my thigh, sliding up and up and finally inside. I kept my head to the window and my eyes closed. I still haven’t made up my mind if I liked it.
We were three blocks from my house when we hit the jogger. It was dawn then, people were walking dogs and running. Maxine’s hand was deep in Delano’s lap and he ran the stop sign. It would have been ok. Delano saw the jogger with enough time to slam on the brakes. She ended up with a cracked hip and a concussion. She was out of the hospital in two weeks. But as soon as the car made contact and we heard the crunch of the jogger’s body, Delano said run.
He and his friend were gone before I could open the door. I couldn’t run in the white platform heels Maxine had given me to wear, and Maxine couldn’t run because she’d never been good at that and she was six months pregnant. Plus, this was my neighborhood and there were not enough black girls with white mothers and pregnant best friends for someone to not recognize me. A crowd had already begun to gather around the jogger but, still, Maxine and I ran. Holding hands, half sobbing and half laughing, we ran the three blocks to my front door before I realized that my keys were lying on the floor of the white car.
The police showed up at almost the exact time Mother did. Both officers wrote in notepads at the kitchen table while Maxine and I sat silently. Mother pulled a frozen cheesecake from the back of the freezer. She peeled back the plastic and cardboard packaging, and ate with loud bites.
I have left my room behind, the room where Maxine whispered the secret of Maximilian into my mouth and, you’ll be his godmummy, right? No doctor has told Maxine the baby’s sex but we know Maximilian is a boy. Even her parents and Delano agree. I watch my bagel-colored hands in my lap, ignoring the backwards looks from Mother and the youth court officer. I am looking for signs of darkening, a deeper brown pinching into the lines of my fingers, the way a newborn will snatch its color from the air days after birth. I used to think being physically close to my father would deepen my black. There is no deepening coming and we are almost off this highway into East Van.
Mother cranks the wheel unnecessarily hard as she pulls into the driveway of a single story house, small but with a large yard, nothing like our cul-de-sac. The man standing at the front door is shorter than the father of the slumpy couch picture led me to believe. He is bald, no towering afro. But the skin color is the same. I look at him and he looks at me and the youth court officer looks at us both. No one looks at Mother.
In my hands the big suitcase is silly, too empty for the space and smell it takes up. My father comes off the steps and takes it from me without saying anything. He meets my eyes the whole time. He smiles a little and still doesn’t look at Mother.
Mother and the youth court officer darken the doorway.
“So. Let’s sort everything out. This trial period. For the good of our daughter.” Mother says “trial period” with no weight in her voice. I know this is a trial period but I am picturing what the rest of my life will look like here, or until I meet my own Delano, who will make me remember that feeling in the backseat during the last joyride with Delano’s friend, and yes, I liked it. Maybe he won’t steal cars; he will be a mechanic, having learnt the trade from his father, and there will be no Maxine to share the secrets of this love. But I will be older. Everything will be different.
My father’s house smells like good, cooked food. Mother never cooks. When she does, it is No-Man’s Land food: burgers and French fries, pierogies, spaghetti and meat sauce, lots of things that “keep” to the next day. Here, inside my father’s house, I smell cooking that opens my nostrils. His real children are gone now, adults living in other provinces. This is the only reason me here is possible. This makes me a little sad, really. It would have been nice to have a sister my age to do my hair. I look for signs of his wife. There is a woman in pictures all over the living room where I stand, and I assume this is her. My father clearly likes fat women. She is about the size of Mother, but the color of rust. In one framed picture she stands behind my father, her hands resting on his shoulder as they both look off into the distance. She has long red nails like Mother.
My father and Mother and the youth court officer talk at the table. I understand now why Mother always liked to listen to Maxine; Maxine and my father do sound like kin, only his Jamaican accent is flattened by decades above the 49th Parallel. Every now and then, I catch Mother looking up to glance at the long-nailed picture of my father’s wife.
Mother’s been gone for a few hours. My suitcase slouches unopened on the floor of my new room. The bed is narrow and made carefully, top sheet folded back over the comforter. The space is bigger than my last room but empty. I cannot imagine speaking in anything but a whisper here.
My father calls my name. I don’t answer, admiring the sound of my name in his throat and wanting to hear it again. The third time he calls, I come from the room.
“Let’s go grocery shopping.”
His car is a faded off-white, no automatic locks. I head for the backseat before I notice my father holds the passenger door open. I feel the cracked leather against my back in the bucket of the passenger seat. I don’t know cars from this angle, from the front seat in daylight. I close my eyes tight, and bring up Maxine’s face.
Idrissa Simmonds is a fiction writer and poet. Currently based in Oakland, she has called Brooklyn and Vancouver, Canada home. Her work has most recently appeared in Black Renaissance Noire, The Caribbean Writer, Fourteen Hills Press, and elsewhere, She is the 2014 winner of the Crab Creek Review poetry contest, and a NYFA and Commonwealth Short Story Award Finalist. She is at work on a novel and is a MFA candidate in fiction at Warren Wilson College. Selected by Ryka Aoki.
Image copyright GR3Z via Flickr Creative Commons.