somewhere above the meniscus

May 21, 2010 § 3 Comments

She seemed to have been born with a certain brand of precocity and oomph. When she was old enough to go alone, she refused to be chauffeured but chose to take the minibus. As it climbed the hill, she would yell “the first house over the line.” Over the line was a colloquialism for the railway embankment on which the trains ran before the government claimed they were not cost effective. The place where the white house with its ripe Surinam cherry roof sat. Every Saturday, Stella would pay the conductor then run to unlock the padlocked gates, run through the yard stripping to her underwear and dove in the creek behind it. After her swim, she would sit under the laden Soursop tree at the edge of the water and unload secrets; “remember the Easter I was in Bequia? I discovered magic. But dat Crapo’ Dacia said I should repent.”

Sometimes she fell asleep until mid-day when the heat from the sun beaming directly above, threatened to turn her skin to pelt. She would retrace her steps gathering her clothes, then enter the kitchen through the back side of the porch that wrapped around the house. Inside, her bare feet almost indistinguishable from the lacquered floor, padded through the rooms as she opened the windows. In her favorite bedroom with its custard yellow walls, Greenheart bed, plain white linen save for the cursive S.P initials, and gossamer curtains flying in the Trade Winds, Stella would play Coltrane and Teddy Pendergrass until she fell asleep again. Often times awaken by the old fashion ring of the telephone that announced her mother’s worry. She always demanded that Stella call the minute she got to Lot 93. The officially name of the property. Later, in America, Stella would learn it’s what Americans call a vacation home, and the one in which she and her family lived, a colonial estate.

But tonight, after wiping the tables and counting her tips, she will return to her Crown Heights apartment with it’s putrid puke green walls and sleep for 4 hours before heading to her next gig at 6am. It’s how she pays for rent and the remainder of her grad school tuition not covered by the Grant. Every now and then, she questions her position and the place she is in. On the bus crossing Atlantic Avenue, she will wish it was heading to Lot 93 so she can sit by the Creek and talk about the first day she rode the number 2 train, and how a morning salutation almost cost her her life because “she resembled the woman who gave him AIDS.” Maybe discuss the day she opened her building and was pushed into the lobby, then up against a wall by the stranger who dived his fingers into her panties and into her before running off. Or the cold terror laced anger that causes her to spend most of her grocery and textbook money on martial arts classes.

Stella knows more anger now than she has ever in her life. She feels anger towards the customer who yelled as she threw pennies at her, “here! Take this for your GED you dumb bitch!” And the stingy Craigslist parents who demand university degrees for nannies but insist on paying $8 per hour. Anger towards the restaurant manager’s “this is Bed-Stuy and if you can’t handle it, quit!” Anger stemming from those who offer pity, assuming that coming from a “third world country” meant she was severely impoverished. She does not bother to inform them that it was in America that she took her first sip from the cup of need. Instead, she allows them the indulgence of their ethnocentrism.

She knows that she can call home, and within minutes money would be wired. But she wants to be independent and doesn’t tell them of her hardships. Not this aspect of it. She discusses the sleepless nights with which she embraces research for her thesis, the neighbor in 3A whose music is obscenely loud and equally annoying as his ridiculous imitation of a Jamaican accent. Her parents would listen then ask, “How are you doing? Are you okay? Do you need anything?” She always responds, “I am fine. You guys need to stop worrying.” It seems her father could see beneath the façade. And despite her refusal, sends money she pretends to not need, but collects for wet days. The dry ones come far and few. It was on one such day she met Obi at the Western Union on Schenectady. He was sending money to Nigeria for his sister Fumilayo’s appendectomy.

Obi, an engineering student whose Yoruba name means ‘heart,’ would both settle and unsettle hers. She was 21 and in her second year of grad school. He was three years her senior and in his final year as an undergrad. In the four years they knew each other, his pepper soup, pounded yams and fish became extensions of comfort. The heavily accented speech tumbling from his lips, even heavier during spirited discussions, have been her pontoons. She sang Pendergrass and taught him how to come up against her when Soca plays. He read Soyinka and gave her recipes for Jollof Rice, and foods cooked with Palm oil. .

Tonight, she wipes the table thinking of how things change. With a year left before graduation, she plans to go skiing, secure an internship even if it is unpaid, and maybe live a little . She shared this with him and his remark was bitter, “My girlfriend and her Aspen dreams. What’s next Dr. Stella?” She brushed it off because she knew he wasn’t not jealous. It just the way his American experience has seared him. The alternative music she began playing in her apartment became an annoyance. “What’s with all this white music? What happened to Pendergrass and Coltrane? I don’t even know who you are anymore.” He would say as he turned to the hip-hop station. A genre she knows he wasn’t fond of but endured just to swing the pendulum. She knows it had to do with her choice to stay in America instead of going back home. When she told him it was obvious he was trying his best not to yell as he said, “Why do you want to be a slave to these people? You don’t need this place. You’re not poor like the rest of us!”

“Quite contrary to what you think, I am poor. This sardine can in which is all I really have. My parents’ money is there’s, and not mine!” She retorted.

“No Stella. You’re not poor. When you have an option you’re not poor. At the end of the day, whenever parents are gone, it is all yours.”

“Yes, but they are alive and in the meanwhile, I want my own.”

He never said anything about it again, but didn’t need to. His passive aggression spoke loudly of his disapproval. The way he spaded the Gazpacho and lamented “no more Escoveitch fish, pounded yams or rice and peas. Only American food now, eh.” To which she responded “It’s Spanish. Not American.” He left the table. She followed him.

“Obi, you’re acting as if I’m the problem, as if I’m different. But in the grand scheme of things, I am the same person!”

“No, you’re not! You’ve been wiping their babies shit and snot, cleaning after them at that restaurant that now you believe beneath them is where you belong! We can go home and live big! Do you think you’ll ever be one of them by going skiing and cooking their tasteless food?”

“Fuck you! I’m not trying to be like anyone. The person you met has always and still is open to new places and things!”

“You curse because you can’t stand the truth! The truth hurts Stella, doesn’t it!”

“The truth? You wanna know the truth? The truth is I am tired of you and your pissy attitude. Yes! America fucked you, but who hasn’t it? You wanna know what hurts? It hurts to see you become a man who wants to live off the milk of his woman’s parents!”

He glared at her then walked out the apartment. Part of her wished she did not follow him, wished she had kept quiet and stayed in the kitchen. That same side wanted to run after him and dive through the meniscus of his heart, offering apologies. But the larger part knew she had to stand still. The days began rolling into each other as she passed them working on her thesis, and developing an appreciation for the annoyances of the neighbor in 3A. She knows he is a proud man and when he quietly closed the door behind him, he would never set foot in her apartment again. She knew he had also closed the door to them. So it did not surprise her when the brown package came with a CD with the Teddy Pendergrass song “Loving You Was Good,” from the 1982 ‘This One Is For You,’ album. In return, she sent him Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass.” They were rescinding their interdependence. Tonight she misses him more than ever. And in the dim of the empty restaurant where sadness swells and threatens to drown her, she wipes her tables wishing things were different.


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