by Sayeeda Copeland
They told her that it would be a quick meeting and in her words she expected to be “in and out.” My mother’s jaw clenched as they escorted us to the visiting room. There wasn’t much in there. A couple of wooden chairs, a table, a stuffed toy chest, and a television that flickered on the wall. She didn’t say much but her eyes did. She squinted, something she would do only when she was uncomfortable or smiling, but this time she sure wasn’t smiling. They darted from the door to my aunt and back to me. She was nervous. I could tell because she kept scratching at the mole in the middle of her right hand. I tried sitting on her lap, but her legs constantly shook so I just joined my cousins at the wooden play table.
Social workers came in to ask to speak to my aunt alone, then to mother, then the both of them together. Their smiles all seemed frozen on their faces. The high-pitch greetings and clicking heels made my mother and aunt suck their teeth. It cracked me and my cousins up and we would mimic them for fun. We loved the stickers and snacks they brought us, though. I tried to focus on the wooden train track in front of me, wondering if it could carry me far away from this room. Auntie told me to stay out of grown folks’ business. I could tell by the low whispers between my aunt and mother that this was for grown folks. A male social worker came in and motioned for them to step outside of the room for a “quick second.” It seemed more like hours.
Eventually, they both returned. My mother kept adjusting the wig we both picked out at the store for her to wear today. All the important wigs had names. She named them or she would ask me to. This one name was Whitney, after her favorite singer. Whitney was special because she only came out when my mother would get fancy for court, church, or coming down to Children’s Aid Society. This was her least favorite place to go. My mother and my aunt sat on the opposite sides of the room, not speaking or looking at one another. The room was so silent, I could hear the music out of my older cousin’s headphones.
There was another knock at the door. I looked away from the flickering channels to see a slim woman with big green eyes enter. Her stare made me feel like I was the only one in the room. My cousins stopped and watched as she sat down at the wooden table with us.
“Hey, sweetheart!” she grinned as if this wasn’t our first meeting. Her hair was in a messy bun, brown like her eye shadow. “Hi, I’m Heather.” She held her hand out for me to shake.
I looked at my aunt, who was now standing next to my mother. She shook her head.
“I’m your new social worker.” Heather rested her elbows on the table and her face in her hands. “Can I ask you a few questions, Aubrey?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. Heather stood and motioned for me to grab my purple book bag and follow her.
“Where do you think you’re going with my child?” My mother leaped from her chair. She was now face to face with Heather, her arms crossed across her chest. My aunt grabbed my hand. Heather adjusted the vanilla folders in her arms. Her green eyes seemed to turn dark as she dared to stare my mother down. She motioned for me to come, but I could feel my aunt’s grip tighten. Heather motioned for me to come to her and walked towards the door again. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going with my child?!” my mother’s voice shook the room. My cousins and I covered our ears.
“Auntie Yolanda…no!” My oldest cousin removed her headphones and stood up. She stood between Heather and my mother.
“I want to know where she’s taking her!” my mother yelled, now knocking the folders from Heather’s arms.
Security came into the room and asked my mother and everyone to have a seat. I sat on my mother’s lap as her leg trembled with anger.
“Ms. Williams, I didn’t want to do it this way.” Heather bent to pick up her files. “Not in front of the children, but yes we are taking her tonight. She will not be returning home with you … or your sister.” Heather remained stone-faced as the whole room erupted. My aunt screamed so loud me and my cousins covered our ears again.
I laid my head against my mother’s chest and wrapped my arms around her. I could smell the vanilla perfume she sprayed on her neck this morning. I could hear her heartbeat pounding against her ribcage. She didn’t hug me back as Heather’s cold hands tried to pry me off of her. Heather begged me to let go.
“No! No! Mommy, please! Mommy tell her no!” I kicked and screamed. I slid off my mother’s lap onto the floor, still flaring. I grabbed one of my mother’s ankles. She avoided looking at me. I screamed for her but she just rocked in her chair, digging at the mole on her hand. I searched the room for my aunt.
“Auntie don’t let her take me! Please!” My Aunt Sheryl’s tears and cries merged with my cousins. The security guard who came in earlier, now lifted me off of the floor and over his shoulder. I banged my tiny fists against his back, I spit and forced boogers out of my nose.
“Sheryl, don’t cry. There’s no need to cry,” were the only words I heard my mother say as they carried me away.
I was placed in a different room, that looked like an abandoned office. The walls were painted a light gray. The dim ceiling light made it hard for me to see what was in the corners. There was a computer and fax machine with dust on it next to the only window in the room. I clicked the switch to a lamp on the table. I could now make out chairs stacked in the corner that had just as much dust on them too. Heather came in with a box of tissues and a children’s happy meal from McDonalds. I was hungry but didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of feeding me. I glared at the kid’s meal box and wondered what my cousins were eating for dinner tonight.
“I need you to breathe and calm down.” Heather placed the food in front of me, and placed her hand on my shoulder. I shrugged her off.
“I know you must hate me right now. I am sorry you had to witness that.” Her sad green eyes pitied me and I hated her for it. She handed me a tissue. I wiped my nose, and stared at the Christmas decorations on the Kleenex box.
“When?” I asked, looking at her for the first time since she came in the room. I noticed her face was still flushed red.
“When?” she asked. “I am not too sure, but we are looking to see where we are going to place you for tonight.” She made a weak attempt at a smile.
“No, when did you become a social worker? I can tell you’re new because you’re still nice.” It was true. I have had my fair share of case workers and most never even greeted me, let alone knew my name and not just my case number.
“You’re very intelligent for a nine year- old.” She winked. A male social worker I had seen speak to my mother and aunt earlier knocked on the door and peeped his head in. He gestured for Heather to step into the hallway. I took that opportunity to fish for a fry out of my happy meal. It was cold.
Heather came back in the room after a couple of minutes, and I quickly tried to wipe the salt off my lips. She laughed and pointed to the side of her mouth to let me know I missed a spot.
“Good news!” she exclaimed, one hand on her hip. “We found your new foster home and we can head there as soon as you finish your food.” I finished my fries while replaying Heather’s words in my head.
“What do you mean new foster home? I never been in a foster home.”
“Oh no darling, I understand that your Aunt Sheryl is family, but she was your foster mom too. Her home with your cousins would be your first foster home, even though she is your biological-real, aunt.” Heather liked to talk with her hands I noticed. She also cleared her throat a lot.
She told me that I would be placed with a Hispanic couple who lived in the Bronx. She seemed truly excited to let me know I would have my own room with a phone in it. She said that I could call my family as much as I wanted. I was glad that the couple lived in the Bronx. My aunt just moved from Harlem to Simpson Street in the Bronx. I could find my way around, since I’d started taking the train alone for a year now. I planned to run away.
There was a knock at the door again. The same social worker who had come previously peeped his head in again. He mouthed to Heather can he come in. She nodded.
“Hey, kiddo!” he put on his best rehearsed smile and voice. “Feeling better? I just wanted to drop in to give you this,” he pulled a black and yellow walkman player from behind his back. I immediately recognized it as my older cousin’s.
“She wanted me to give this to you to take to your new home.” He then snapped his finger as if he suddenly remembered something urgent. “Heather, the Gonzalez family could not come through tonight. So we have a couple in Queens who has given us the ok...whenever you’re ready you can head out.” They both nodded in agreement. I was confused. They didn’t want me either?
Heather didn’t go into detail as to why I couldn’t go to the Gonzalez family. She explained that placing children at the last minute was always a bit difficult but assured me that I would like my new home. There was an African-American couple that offered to take me in. They lived in Queens. Their names were the Alstons. She said that they were a bit older, in their eighties. I imagined having to rub Vicks vapor rub on Mrs. Alston’s feet just like I had to do when I visited my Nana.
“Well, can you ask her does she know how to braid?” I pulled at the two month old cornrows Auntie Sheryl had put in my hair. Heather assured me Ms. Alston said she knew how to braid very well. For the first time that night, I smiled.
The yellow taxi approached the building as soon as we stepped outside. Heather held my hand and climbed into the back seat with me. We rode into the night. I watched the lights of the cars speed by, and Heather pointed out the different bridges we had to cross. I pulled my cousin’s headphones over my ears, closed my eyes, and dreamed what Queens would be like.
I woke to the light tapping of Heather’s finger on my head. We had arrived and I couldn’t make out the street signs. It was dark, and only one street light showed the shadow houses that lined the block. I squeezed Heather’s hand and shivered at the cold air kissing my ankles. I should have put on my boots like Mommy had told me to. I started counting all the houses we walked past. I guessed that the next one would be the Alstons. We slowed down and stopped in front of a house painted light blue. It had four buses in the front yard that formed a square.
“114…114-13. Here we are, sweetie.” She quickly placed the paper back in her jacket pocket with her gloves and grabbed my hand.
We climbed the steps up the front door. I peered at the front window. There stood an angel figurine. She was small with a white dress on that went all the way to her feet. Her white wings and a bright white light glowed behind her. Her hands were in a praying position and she looked up to the sky. I looked up to see what she was looking at and saw a sky full of stars. I felt safe again.
The door swung open before Heather could ring the bell. A girl who was a little taller than me stood in front of us. She eyed Heather and rolled her eyes at Heather’s rehearsed smile. I giggled. We followed her to the living room.
“Mama!” She belched so loud that I jumped and dropped my cousin’s Walkman. Heather followed her into the living room.
The living room had two long white couches that were covered in plastic. The oakwood table was low to the floor. A bible sat open in the center of it. There was a staircase with framed pictures lining its wall. The people in the pictures all looked like they were thinking about something real hard.
“Mama!” she yelled again.
“Girl if you don’t hush with all that yellin’,” I heard Mrs. Alston’s voice before I saw her. Small legs with white slippers start to descend down the stairs. She had pecan-colored skin, and salt-and-pepper hair. She wore a white robe that showed her red and black gown underneath.
“Goodnight, ladies.” Mrs. Alston nodded her head once she got to the bottom of the staircase. I glanced up at her, amazed at how young she looked. I didn’t see any wrinkles on her face, but lots on her hands. Her skin on her legs looked see-through. I could see veins running like rivers down to her feet. Heather and Mrs. Alston walked into her kitchen to “talk privately.” I sank into the closest couch and looked at the Christmas tree shining across from me. Its lights danced across the mirror. There were two presents sitting underneath, untouched.
“Those are for Deborah.” The girl who had opened the door was sitting on the bottom step, watching me. She had sad eyes, the kind that always looked like they were waiting for an answer. Her nightgown matched Mrs. Alston’s. Just then Heather and Mrs. Alston emerged from the kitchen. Heather gave me a hug, a wink, and told me to call her if I needed anything. When the door closed, tears filled my eyes.
“Now, now,” Mrs. Alston stood behind me with her hands on my shoulders. She turned me around and pinched my cheek. “They didn’t tell me you were this cute!” I could now see up close the lines that set deep in her skin, especially in the corner of her eyes as she smiled. “You must be starving, child.” I wasn’t sure if it was a question but I rubbed my stomach in response. She asked the girl on the steps to show me to my room first.
“Which bed is hers?” the girl asked, eyes still sad.
“I laid out her nightgown. The one across from your bed, Juanita, is hers. Give her a toothbrush as well.” She then directed us to head upstairs. I climbed the steps with caution. I felt that my sneakers were making the white carpet dirty. We got to the top, when the girl opened a door and climbed another set of stairs. I stayed at the bottom, sure that she was going to find my toothbrush.
“Hey!” she shouted. “You can come up here…this is our room.”
I sucked my teeth, upset at the fact that I could have had my own room with the Gonzalez family if they hadn’t change their minds. I climbed the steps to be greeted by a huge room with four beds.
“Isn’t this, like--“ Juanita was now bouncing on her bed, trying to catch her breath.
“Yup, its an attic. What? You never seen one before? They don’t have attics in the Bronx?” her tone wasn’t like before.
“How did you know I’m from the Bronx?” I asked, placing my bookbag down next to a bed that had a red and black nightgown laid across it.
“I ear hustle. You’ll do the same. I got to know who I’m sharing my shit with, don’t I?” I giggled at her cursing. I never could swear around my mother or aunt, but me and my cousin did when they weren’t around.
“I’m from Harlem. And I did see ‘em in movies…people get locked or killed in them.” I scanned the attic for monsters. Juanita threw a toothbrush on my bed and picked up my Walkman. She placed the headphones on her ears and pretended to do the Harlem shake dance, moving her shoulders up and down really fast. We both doubled over in laughter.
“How old are you?” I asked, looking at her posters of B2K on her side of the room.
“How old do I look?” She poked out her chest.
“Just turned few days ago…this past Christmas Eve,” she beamed. She walked over to a wooden door and took out purple sheets. She made my bed and told me to put on my gown for dinner. I did and Mrs. Alston called for us.
“By the way, the only monsters you would have to worry about are the others that come. You seem alright…for now.” Juanita stuck out her tongue and raced ahead down the attic stairs and cut off the light. I ran my fingers against the wall until my hand found the banister. I found my way to the kitchen. Mrs. Alston was at her dining room table setting bowls down. Juanita placed a napkin and spoons beside each bowl. She smiled and her eyes were bright for the first time. She also didn’t sound like the same person I was talking to up in the attic. Her voice was softer and also had a squeak. I stood at one of the two empty chairs, ready for the signal to sit down.
Mrs. Alston excused herself and called from the bottom of the steps.
“Louie!” she called out. Her cracking voice was met by creaking above us. The sound of footsteps led to the creaking of the stairs. Emerged from the living room into the dining room was a short bald man, a bit darker than Mrs. Alston. He wore brown tinted glasses with black frames. The tie he had on matched his beige pants. He cleared his throat and Juanita stood to pull his chair out for him.
“Goodnight young lady.” His voice was raspy and his hand trembled once he held it out to me. I shook it very firmly but avoided eye contact.
“Goodnight… sir,” I mumbled.
“Aubrey will be joining us for supper. Isn’t she the cutest, Louie?!” Mrs. Alston held out her hands to her sides. Juanita and Mr. Alston both grabbed one on either side with bowed heads. I grabbed Juanita’s hand and Mr. Alston’s hand. As Mrs. Alston prayed, I popped one eye open. Juanita and I stared at each other. She started making faces at me and I held in my laugh. Mr. Alston’s shaking palm was now sweaty in mine. The prayer seemed to take forever. We finally sat down and enjoyed the homemade soup Mrs. Alston made. When we finished, I watched Juanita clear the table. She showed me how to organize the dishes in the cabinets like Mr. and Mrs. Alston liked.
We both gave Mr. and Mrs. Alston kisses goodnight on their cheeks and scurried up the stairs to the bathroom to brush our teeth. I began wondering what my cousins were doing, probably watching reruns of Martin before going to bed. My mother was probably running numbers and my aunt sitting with the neighbors in the living room. I watched Juanita floss, and thought how strange it was.
“What’s that string?” I saw it slip in and out of her crooked bottom teeth. She spat in the sink and looked at me with a raised brow.
“Let me guess, y’all don’t floss in the Bronx either?” she teased. She ripped off a fresh piece of floss and showed me how to place it between my teeth. I must had done it wrong because my gums started bleeding.
“Hey wanna see something crazy?” Juanita was splashing water around in the sink to wash my blood down the drain. The bright red matched our nightgowns. I nodded, hoping whatever she was about to show me wouldn’t make my gums bleed again. “You have to be as quiet as a mouse. Can you do that?” she asked. I forced my lips together, signing like I zipped them up. She gave me a thumbs-up and motioned for me to follow her back downstairs. We went down to the den of the house. The lights were off but the television was on.
I could see Alex Trebek on the screen. His mouth was moving but there was no sound. Juanita and I hid behind the huge china cabinet, we had the perfect view of the television. She pointed past the china cabinet and mouthed Mr. Alston’s name. She put her hand up to her lips to tell me to stay quiet. We waited, watching the muted Jeopardy and then the channel flickered. Next think I know we were watching a man and a woman do what me and my cousins called “grown up things.” The woman’s face looked like she was in so much pain. I gasp and put my hand over my mouth. Juanita’s eyes grew with excitement as she looked back at me. She covered her mouth too. Juanita then tapped me and mouthed watch this. She backed up, grabbed the cane leaning against the closet door in the living room then walked calmly into the den. She walked past the china cabinet so Mr. Alston could see her now.
“Papa! I have a trip this week. I need you to sign my permission slip.” She skipped towards him as if not seeing what was on the screen. At the sound of her voice the channel switched back to Jeopardy. He turned up the volume.
“Of course, baby! I’ll sign it first thing tomorrow morning. Goodnight, darling.” I could hear Mr. Alston stutter. I peeped past the cabinet and saw her laying the cane next to his recliner. She gave him a peck on the cheek and skipped out of the den.
We both crept up the stairs to the attic. We doubled over in laughter quietly, careful not to wake Mrs. Alston. Juanita made me pinky swear not to tell anyone what I saw. She said that he watched that every night when Mrs. Alston went upstairs. I told her that it was grown people business. I was told to stay out of stuff like that.
The Christmas tree stayed up in the Alston’s house until March. I remember the day it was taken down because it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day--and the day before my birthday. Besides church, we didn’t go anywhere special. After evening bible study, Mr. Alston picked us up and drove us home. Mrs. Alston instructed Juanita to help me undress the tree once the table was cleared. The dried pine needles fell like confetti as Juanita and I carefully removed the green and silver decorations. Mrs. Alston sat on her spotless couch, after dinner, and watched us closely. She didn’t speak, just nodded or shook her head if asked anything. There were presents still perfectly wrapped under the tree. I figured they must have been for relatives who weren’t able to visit for the holiday. I also wondered if they might have belonged to Juanita, but she must have been naughty and didn’t receive them. Juanita must have been thinking the same thing.
“Momma? Can I open them?” Juanita picked up the tiniest box, wrapped in a white and silver paper. She shook it fiercely near her ear and it sounded like rice in the box.
“Is it a pair of earrings?!” I asked Juanita. She folded her arms still holding the gift.
“Now, Aubrey, why would it be earrings? Momma don’t have her ears pierced, silly girl!” She tossed the box my way. I caught and examined it like a rubix cube. I looked at Mrs. Alston who was now removing what appeared to be clip-on earrings.
“What could it be then?” I asked again, now looking at Mrs. Alston.
“It ain’t earrings because Adventists don’t like bling!” she flashed her rare smile and danced like a ballerina around the tree.
“Juanita!” Mrs. Alston was sharp and stern. “Lord, Jesus help me.” she put her hand against her forehead as if feeling for her temperature. “ Go upstairs and get ready for bed. Make sure you say your prayers and repent for all of the foolishness tonight!” The couch’s plastic made noises as Mrs. Alston scooted her body off of it. She motioned for Juanita to head up to the attic. Juanita dropped the gift and went upstairs, stomping as hard as she could.
I walked around the tree as Mrs. Alston piled the gifts up in my arms. She instructed me to take them to her room. I had never been inside. The door was cracked open so I turned my back and pushed it open wider. The room was dark. In the center was a huge bed. I could tell it was expensive and sturdy. Mr. Alston lay still on the right side of the bed, stirring only once when I stubbed my toe on their wooden bedframe.
“Louise?” he called out. I stood there frozen, trying to suppress the scream I wanted to let out from my throbbing toe. The bed creaked as he sat up and turned on the lamp on the nightstand next to the bed. Mr. Alston grabbed his tinted glasses, let out a yawn and cleared his throat. “Goodnight, young lady. Go ahead and put them down, anywhere.” The light from the lamp made his gold tooth shine as he spoke.
“Goodnight, sir.” I tried to keep my eyes on the pastor preaching on the muted screen. Mr. Alston moved the mountain of blankets that were covering him and swung his legs over his side of the bed. He wore a striped pajama suit. It reminded me of the pajamas worn by these life-sized bananas from a show I watched when I was younger. He then got on his knees and started to pray. Frozen again, I didn’t know whether to join him or leave. He never came with us to church, just dropped us off and headed home. It was something humbling about seeing an older man on his knees. The older men I was used to were domino players and loud cussers from around my way. I wondered if Mr. Alston was repenting from what was on that LAST button channel. I began tiptoeing out of their bedroom. The cushion from the carpet made it easy not to make a sound but I felt wrong for being there.
“You don’t have to call me Mr. Alston. You can call me Papa.” His head was still bowed. I paused and turned around. I could now hear his breathing. I watched his body rise and fall with each breath. The television now showed the same pastor laying hands on people. They were fainting, just like Mrs. Alston would do during church service.
“Well I do have a daddy...sir” His head rose. I figured I said something wrong to have him stop praying. His glasses were now foggy. He lifted himself off of his knees, surprisingly without his cane. He moved the blankets and patted the empty space beside him for me to sit. I limped over from near the big wooden dresser and sat next to him. The gold tooth shone again, this time even brighter.
“You know, I had a little girl just like you.” His crooked index finger tapped me on the nose. “I had her, and like your daddy, she went away.” I nodded, wondering now where this little girl was and if I could play with her.
“She was in the towers too?” I knew that it wasn’t polite to ask too many questions like my mommy always told me. I hope I was still staying in a child’s place.
He motioned towards the closet door, where his cane hung on its knob. I jumped off the bed and grabbed it, and handed it to him. Mr. Alston grunted and pulled himself up on his feet. He walked around the bed to the corner where I had dropped the Christmas presents. He tapped the first box and I ran to pick it up for him. We made it back to the bed. I stared at the present, knowing that Juanita would be so jealous if she knew I was holding it.
“Go ahead, and open it. Happy Birthday, Aubrey.” I stared at him with a face of uncertainty. “Go, ahead, now.”
I slowly untied the perfect purple bow. The ribbon was soft like silk between my fingers. I ripped the wrapping off as carefully as I could. There in my hands laid a small brown-skinned baby doll. Her hands were curled into tiny fists and her eyes were shut like a newborn baby’s. I smiled when I pressed her foot where the TRY ME tag was and she let out a soft giggle. The pink pacifier in her mouth was so tiny and her yellow nightgown matched the one I had on.
“Do you like it?” Mrs. Alston’s voice startled me. Her body looked dark standing in the doorway. She pushed the heavy door open wider. I quickly jumped off the bed and pushed the doll baby onto the mountain of blankets.
“I didn’t do nothing! I swear!” The ribbon fell to the floor. Mrs. Alston walked into the room, ignoring my trembling voice. She examined her face in her vanity mirror and removed the brown bob wig with honey highlights. She placed it on her mannequin head sitting on top of the television. Joining Mr. Alston on the bed, she raised her brows waiting for my answer.
“Do you like the baby doll, Aubrey?” she asked again, handing me the doll. I grabbed it and nodded yes. I held my new dollbaby, watching her eyelids open and close as I moved her up and down.
“Thank you Mama, thank you Papa.” The words fell from my lips before I could understand the weight of them. I didn't want the Alstons to replace my mommy and daddy but I knew they were not bad people either.
I climbed onto their bed and gave each a kiss on the cheek. I closed the heavy door behind me and hurried upstairs to the attic.
Juanita greeted me at the top of the staircase with her arms folded. She held her hand out for the doll baby. I gave it to her. She examined the doll letting out an “ooo” and “ahh” dramatically.
“That doll wasn’t for you, you know that, right?” the voice wasn’t jeering, like it usually is. She lifted my doll, who I had named in my head, Yolanda, after my mother. “Look here, she even has a name on her ass.” Juanita pointed to the name stitched on the bottom of the doll. It read DEBBIE.
“Who’s Debbie?” I asked, wrapping my hair in the bonnet Mrs. Alston had given each of us.
“Whats the first thing you notice when you come into the house?” Juanita held her brush to me as a mic.
“Uh...the white couches?” I guess that was the answer since that was the first thing I noticed the night I arrived.
“No, silly girl. The picture that is in the center of the living room.” It dawned on me that she was right. There was a picture of a young, brown skinned girl that hung alone on the livingroom wall. In the picture the girl looks a bit older than Juanita. She's sporting a perfectly shaped afro too. The woman is smiling in the picture, but at times she looks sad too. Juanita told me the first night that that was the black Mona Lisa.
“What about that creepy picture?” I questioned, trying not to think about how the young girl’s eyes followed me wherever I went in the living room.
“That’s Deborah, their daughter who died. Deborah’s birthday is today, March 16th, Aubrey, just like yours. Isn’t that creepy? All of these years I’ve been here with these old people and they let you open her presents?! That’s some bullshit.” She stood up and tossed the doll onto my bed.
“Died? How old was she?” I didn't know if I wanted the doll anymore at that point.
“How am I supposed to know? I’m not Miss Cleo. Go to sleep, we have bible study in the morning.” Juanita sucked her teeth at my ignorance, hurried down the bottom of the attic steps to turn off the lights.
Juanita’s random swearing usually made me laugh. Tonight though, my mind was wrapped up like presents, wondering what happened to the Alstons’ daughter.
By the time summer came around, I had been with the Alston’s for half a year. Juanita made her third year anniversary with them that June. She never spoke of any family. She didn’t go to the Children Aid Society for family visits like I did. I overheard Mr. and Mrs. Alston discussing if they would adopt her. Juanita had other plans. She said she never got comfortable with a family, every time she did, she was moved to another home.
“Can I ask you something?” Her asking permission to ask me a question, made my ears perk up. Juanita knew everything, from boys to where Jesus grew up at, so for her to want to ask me a question was surprising.
“Sure…” we were both brushing our teeth after dinner.
“Has anyone ever been fresh with you?” The water in the sink filled the silence between us. She spit out her mouthwash and waited for my response.
“Fresh? You mean doing things that grownups do?”
“Yes, touch you. Has anyone ever touched you?” Her eyes were sadder than I’d ever seen them. I must have gotten lost in my thoughts because she tugged on my pigtails.
“Hellooooo, earth to Bronx girl.”
“Yes. Someone did but please don’t say anything.” We held out our pinkies to each other, locked them to show we promised. Juanita grabbed my hand and headed up the attic stairs. She pointed to her bed for me to sit, which I did and crossed my legs.
“So…you go first.” I felt like I was in one of those interrogation rooms with the light shining right into my face. Juanita started undoing my pigtails, carefully unwrapping my bobos and unclipping my barrettes.
“He’s my Nana’s boyfriend. We call him Ben… but his real name is Benjamin.” The feeling of the brush running through my scalp made me think of the nights I would lay on my mommy’s lap as she did my hair. “He would tell me I was his favorite out of all my cousins. He said he would buy me a, um, TV, but I had to let him…” I stopped talking at the same time she stopped brushing.
“Let me guess, you let him touch your Promise Land and he let you have a TV?” she continued brushing my hair. That’s what our pastor called our lady parts. The Promise Land. And she preached how no one is welcome there but our husbands.
“No, he would kiss me. And he made me sit on his lap a lot. I didn’t like it.” Juanita’s hands stopped moving again. I looked up to see her eyes gloss over. I’d never seen her cry.
“That's what he did to you?” she whispered. I knew she must have had a Ben. A person that made you want to lock your bedroom door at night because they were the boogie monsters in your life.
“You must have been scared of Papa when you came here…” I didn’t know if she was asking me or telling me. Truth be told, he looked a lot like Ben just older and shorter.
“Papa dont do bad things. Like, when he gave me the baby doll, he didn’t try to tell me to sit on his lap when we was alone. I was scared he would but he never tried that. He didn’t tell me to kiss him on the mouth like Ben.” I looked at Juanita waiting for her to drop the bomb of Mr. Alston trying to have his way with her. She tilted my head to the side, carefully listening and braiding my hair into cornrows straight back.
“Men aren’t the ones who do it all the time. My momma, real one not momma downstairs…did things to me.” I could hear her sniffle but I couldn’t see her face from where my head was angled. “My daddy, he knew but didn’t care much for being home with us. My momma would leave me alone, so I made friends with the girl in the apartment next to us. I did some of the things to her, and her momma called ACS on my momma.” Juanita went on to tell me about how her mother blamed her for ruining her life. She said she never had any family visit her or try to get her out of the system.
“Is your momma in jail?” I don’t know why I asked, I felt it was the right thing to do.. People like Ben and her momma deserved life if it was up to me.
“Is your daddy in jail?” She then tossed her brush on the dresser next to her bed. I let my fingers over my fresh cornrows. She was done and reached over and held a mirror up for me to see my new hairstyle.
“I look like Queen Latifah from Set It Off,” I giggled, purposely ignoring Juanita’s question. Mrs. Alston would never let us watch a movie like that. If it didn’t teach about Jesus it was not allowed in the house.
“Answer me. Is your daddy in jail?” I looked up from my reflection and could see her staring with no expression on her face. Her eyes were puffy.
“No, my daddy isn’t locked up, he’s dead.”
“How?” Her question forced me to remember back to the day I got the news. I refused to let Juanita see me cry.
“How? I’ll tell you how when you tell me what happened to Deborah.” I smiled a slick smile, knowing she probably thought I forgot about asking. Mrs. Alston called us to dinner before Juanita could protest my negotiation. She stuck her tongue out, raced down the steps, and cut the lights off.
My family visits were every two weeks. They were nice, I mean when my mommy actually decided to show up. The days she didn’t, I would cry, and in return get a happy meal from Heather. I was sick of happy meals and as good as the Alstons treated me, I was sick of not being home. I missed staying up late watching old movies like Crooklyn and anything with Pam Grier. I missed sneaking a beer out of the fridge with my cousins while the adults had their domino games. Aunt Sheryl would bring my cousins to see me on the days she could get off--which wasn’t often. Though the visits were two hours, saying goodbye was something we never could get used to. My soft cries would turn into kicks and screams to stay one more hour.
When the yearly review of my care plan came around it was held three days before Christmas. Mrs. Alston and Mr. Alston piled us into the car and we headed to Manhattan earlier than usual, to beat the traffic in the snowstorm. The city looked like a big funnel cake that God sprinkled sugar on. It was beautiful. I was so excited to see what the social workers would say. I felt in my heart that I would go back to my momma for Christmas. That’s all I wrote Santa about in school that month.
The meeting started at noon sharp. There were chairs that formed a circle in the middle of the room. I sat next to Mrs. Alston. The room smelled of coffee and bagels. Everyone spoke in hushed tones until Heather walked in with her supervisor. Every seat was filled except for one. My mother had not shown up to the meeting. I glanced at the door nervously, praying this wouldn’t be like most of my family visits. Everyone sat in the circle, occasionally enjoying their refreshment and introducing themselves. It was Mrs. Alston’s turn.
“Good afternoon, my name is Louise Alston. I am 82 years young.” she giggled. “ I’ve been a foster mother for over fifty years. Aubrey is my latest child--a sweet child and I am her foster mother.” She smiled and nodded gracefully then looked down towards me. I followed suit.
“My name is Aubrey. I’m, uh, I’m ten years old. I live in Saint Albans, Queens with Momma and Papa.” Everyone smiled those plastic smiles while Mrs. Alston patted my knee with satisfaction. Heather was in the middle of discussing the Plan of Action when suddenly the door flew open. My mother stumbled into the room. She was wearing a gray jacket that seemed to hold the smell and stain of every drink she’d had the night before. The red boot on her left foot seemed to have broken its heel. Once her eyes locked with mine she started smiling. Something was different though. She was missing one of her bottom front teeth. The frozen smiles on everyone’s faces had now slowly, like a wave, turned into frowns. Heather stood up first.
“Um, excuse me. Where is security? We cannot have Ms. Williams here like this. She is not, clearly, ...“ I jumped up from my chair and ran to my mother. I hugged her waist and turned around heading to the ladies’ room down the hall. Once inside I shut and locked the door behind us. My mother headed straight for the toilet. She coughed several times then threw up what must have been last night’s dinner. I turned my head away, in disgust and also to hide the tears falling from my eyes. I wanted to be her mother at that moment. I wanted to rock her and sing lullabies that she used to sing me before bedtime when we lived in Harlem. As soon as she was done, I handed her the loose roll of tissue that sat on the sink. She wiped her mouth, then she sat down on the floor and cried. Her whole body shook, her cries reminded me of the nights we didn’t have no place to sleep but in her car.
“I’m sorry mommy.” I thought I whispered it but she heard me.
“No! He should have stayed home. Why didn’t he stay home ‘Brey? Your father should be here!” I could tell she played this moment over and over in her head. It felt as if she didn’t even see me in the bathroom. She was screaming into her hands. I couldn’t hear the rest of her words because there was sudden loud banging on the door.
“Someone is in here,” I yelled, hoping the person would see there two other bathrooms on this floor. The banging continued. I swung the door open to be face to face with Heather.
“We are in here, what the fuck!” my mother yelled from behind me. Her mascara had run and dried on her face. She found her way to her feet. She stumbled towards the door, catching her balance by holding on to the sink. Heather’s eyes were dark green with anger, but she could hear mother needing me. She put up her hand, cleared her throat and mouthed five minutes. I closed the door, locked it, and turned on the water at the sink. I splashed water on my face then on my mother’s. The coldness stunned her and she popped her eyes wide open. She looked at me alarmed like it was our first time seeing one another for the day. Once she realized where she was again, she began to sob.
“They want to take you from me, ‘Brey. I can’t have that. You are my daughter! Mine!.” Her words slurred. Her lips were stained with red lipstick she must have wiped off hours ago. I held her face with both my hands and kissed her cheeks. She was a beautiful mess.
“Mommy, what happened?” I questioned her but I already knew the answer. She knew the meeting was today, so she got her “fix” as she would call it. It wasn’t a matter of what, but a matter of when. My mother was a super woman but crack her kryptonite. They told her she couldn't have a weak moment because of her drug tests. I knew she would buckle, but this was the hardest I saw her fall. She promised me she was keeping away from that stuff.
“’Brey, my baby, I'm so sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” She cried so hard her nose began to run again. I wiped her nose and made her cough three good times. She cleared the cold in her chest.
“We won’t let them; we won’t let them take me forever, mommy. Now come on, swish some water in your mouth and splash some more water on your face again. I got some spray and lotion here in my bookbag.” I reached into the bag I brought and also fished out Juanita’s brush. I made her take off her shirt and turn it around. It was cleaner on the other side, and it would have to do for the duration of the meeting. I brushed my mother’s matted wig, wondering if this one was Whitney, my favorite.
My mother’s last episode wasn’t new, or alarming. Heather didn’t understand how I was so calm, and not crying at the sight of my drunk mother, like other foster kids she dealt with. I was used to her having blackouts, or stumbling in with a story, a bruise or a load of money she'd won down at the number spot. That’s where she met daddy. The number spot was this half-abandoned apartment in a whitewashed building up on 148th and Amsterdam.. It was always filled with grown-ups cussing and swearing, dancing in dark corners or gambling. No matter how bright it was outside, it was always dim in the number spot. My mother would bring me in there, and all of the old men would give me dollars or some sugary candy from their pockets. They jingled the loose change in their pocket, and pinched my cheeks, all while hollering out the latest numbers they were sure to hit. They called me Little Chicken, because my mother greased my face with so much Vaseline, it looked like I had just finished eating fried chicken. The air in there was thick, as hard to breathe as it was to see faces through the cigarette smoke. My mother moved in that room real easy, like a black panther, smiling or ready to ask someone for the money they could lend or owed her. I never left her side, even when some of her conversations turned into fights. She would always hit some money because of me. Her lottery numbers came from dreams, fortune cookies, or me.
“Come on, gimme a number, baby.” She would lick her lips, smiling as I would take the dollar she held out before dishing her my latest group of numbers. The numbers I chose had no significance. I would remember street numbers, or the number of times someone in the number spot said “Motherfucker.” She taught me how to fill in the bubbles on the lottery paper, and how to cash in when she'd won. Anytime she got some money off of my guesses it was a good night for my mother.
We used to live on 148th street and Convent, right on the hill. I remember one of the nights of her coming home really late, banging on the door. This was not out of the ordinary, for her to come home this way. She called my father’s name over and over until he got up and answered. She stumbled in, holding on to both sides of the narrow hallway walls for balance. She didn’t give much of a fight as he took off her heels, jeans, and carried her to the bedroom. I popped my head up from the pillows, examining her face resting on the pillows next to me. Her eyes were red and glossy. She doubled over in laughter, swatting my daddy’s hands away as he tried to remove her blouse.
“It’s alright baby, go back to sleep.” His weary smile couldn’t hide his disappointment. His whisper was more for her than me. Her laughs quickly turned into groans as she begged him to stop talking so loud and to turn off the lights because they were making her head hurt. Suddenly she sat up, with more energy than she'd come in with, and threw her body over the side of the bed. My father, prepared, held the trash bin out for her just in time. The smell of beer and throw up filled the room. She groaned my father’s name again as he wiped her mouth and face with a rag. He rubbed her back and moved her hair from her face. I watched them until I dozed off to the sound of the bath water running. Those nights became more frequent, and always ended in her throwing him out, sending him back to his wife.
If I had any hope of returning home, it was dwindling by the day. Momma kept me busy. Between school, tap dance classes, weekly bible study and church, I was getting used to my new life. Momma was known as Mother Alston at our Brooklyn church in Brownsville. She sat at the front of the church with our pastor. She held prayer meetings, took us to visit sick church members in the hospital and did community service events. Momma prayed for the sick and caught the holy ghost every Sunday. It took me a while to get used to people suddenly breaking out into a dance, or fainting on the floor. There was never a warning before it happened. The ushers dressed in white would hold hands forming a circle around the person who caught the holy spirit. They would lay sheets across women who had fainted to give them privacy if their dress happened to lift up on their way going down. Others would encourage them by stretching out a hand, or dancing too where they stood. The pastor would preach until sweat would fall on the sides of his face and he would need a sip of water; his glass was sweating too. I watched both young and old call on the name of Jesus at the tops of their lungs. Women would kick off their expensive heels and run around the church, shaking and stomping the whole way. They would speak in tongues, a language Momma said only God understood. I thought God and maybe babies too because it sounded like words only an infant knew. Juanita thought it was a sight when I cried the first time I saw someone catch the holy ghost.
“Damn, they don’t have churches in the Bronx, either?” she teased as the usher brought l me a box of tissues to wipe my face. Juanita was placed in the teen choir and I was in the children’s. . We were responsible for learning our weekly scriptures and remembering to give back to God with our allowance. Momma gave us two dollars every Sunday, one for church as our tithes and offering and one for us to do as we pleased. I saved my dollars in an empty pringle can and hid it under my mattress out of Juanita’s sight. I figured I'd save enough money to buy a really nice outfit for when I returned home to my family.
Momma and Papa felt I was old enough to learn to take the bus home alone once I reached 5th grade. I had taken the bus alone once when my mother first moved to the Bronx. I took the BX 19 from Riverbank Park to the Bronx Zoo, where she'd just moved across the street from. So I didn’t understand why it frightened me so much to have to go to school alone in Queens. Juanita took a different route; her school was walking distance. My first day after taking the bus, I rushed in the house ready to tell Momma how my prayers were answered. God had helped me be brave just like she told me he will. I walked into the house and saw the two plants that sat in the window were knocked down on the floor. I dropped my bookbag and ran to the kitchen. I shouted Papa’s name twice when I didn’t see him sitting at the kitchen table. No one was in the kitchen, dining room or living room. Suddenly I heard a thump from upstairs. I could hear muffled voices as I climbed the stairs two steps at a time. I followed the sound of the voices to the front of Momma’s bedroom door. I pushed the door open and saw Momma and Juanita both holding on to something. Juanita’s face was drenched in tears.
“Let go, Juanita,” Momma cooed, as if singing to her rather than commanding her. Juanita looked over at me standing in the door. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help her but I wanted to help Momma too. She cried harder, gritting her teeth as she tightened her grip on what looked like a t-shirt. She shook her head and tugged the shirt, jerking Momma’s body back and forth. I placed my hands on her arm and just gave her the look I always gave when I needed her to help me. She wouldn’t look my way, and kept her eyes on Momma.
“No! This is mine!” she jerked the shirt again, but this time Momma let go. She was breathing heavily and Juanita pushed past me and ran up the attic stairs. Momma leaned against her bed, and placed her hands on her chest. I grabbed the bottle of water nearby and handed it to her. Overhead I could hear Juanita moving back and forth in the attic. When she finally could speak, her voice was low and stern.
“That girl has to go.” She pointed towards the ceiling as if Juanita was right there. I didn’t dare ask what happened. “After everything we have done for her, she goes and embarrasses this family!” Momma lifted her body off of the bed, slipped into her slippers and got on her knees. She prayed for what seemed like an hour. I crept out the room, closing the door behind me.
Juanita was laying down on the bed with her legs crossed and her arms behind her head. She looked like she was on a beach somewhere, not just getting out of a fight with her foster mother.
"You can have my bike…I was getting too big for it anyway.” She didn’t bother to open her eyes.
"I don’t want that. I want to know why you and Momma was fighting for!” I was best off talking to a wall. Juanita was silent until I tossed my pillow at her.
“Okay, shit!” she sat up. “Tell her not to touch my things. I spent my money on this tank top, she found it in the laundry and tried to take it from me.” She was doing that thing she does when she's not telling the whole truth. She was avoiding looking at me in my eyes.
“And she’s not telling you that Mr. and Mrs. Gaines came over here to tell me how she is flashing her breasts out of the window to their sons!” Momma was walking up the stairs of the attic, clearly she’s been listening to us.
Juanita stood now in front of her bed. She glared at Momma, grabbed her suitcase and stood before the stairs.
“You did what?!” I meant to think it but the words left my mouth before I could stop it. Mr. and Mrs. Gaines were our neighbors. I played with their daughter, Michelle, sometimes. They had twin sons who were in high school, and who helped Papa wash his car in the summer. My jaw must have still been on the floor because Momma told me to get ready for supper. I grabbed my toothbrush to head to the bathroom when Juanita stopped me.
“Since we are telling everyone’s business, I swear to God I will tell her.” She held my arm but stared at Momma. I backed up and walked to my bed. I sat down, prepared for them to tell me I’ll be leaving soon too. I didn’t want to seem too excited.
“Tell me.” I urged Juanita on, her grip on me loosened and she dropped her bag. She sat on her bed and tears began falling down her face. “Tell me, right now.” I was now anxious, something told me this news wasn’t going to be about me being reunited with my mother.
“I went through your journal, Brey.”
“Why?” I knew that if she had found my journal, she found my pringles can too. She also read all the mean things I said about her.
“You remember you wrote how you don’t get why everyone keep saying you dad likes eggs?” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and looked at me.
“Yeah…why? I don’t get it.” I was relieved she didn’t bring up how I called her stupid and a brat in some of my entries, but still confused.
Momma began mumbling Psalms 23 under her breath. She always mumbled that scripture when she had something on her mind. She shook her head, made an about face and walked slowly down the attic steps.
“Brey, your dad didn’t die in the Twin Towers. He died because he had that disease. AIDS, not eggs. Don’t believe me? Ask Momma.”
My parents met in ’82, ten years before I came into the picture. I asked my mother if that story Aunt Sheryl told any and everyone who asked, was true. My mother told me that she first met my father that summer. She said it was a hot day and she and her friend were sitting in a park minding their business when he kept walking by. She would smile every time she told me the story, as if she went back to that very moment.
“Your daddy was a huge flirt, girl,” she would blush. “He kept coming around, then one day I just asked him if he liked what he saw?” I would giggle, imagine my daddy drooling at how pretty my mommy was. She said she began to see him more often, but it wasn’t until a party that they were officially introduced. She had pulled out her favorite leopard dress and high heels that night. She would brag that she had hair down to her butt, so there was no need for a wig. Her boyfriend at the time picked her up and they drove over to Morningside Park where a summer party was happening. As soon as they got to the party, her boyfriend told her he had
someone he wanted my mother to meet. She said he came back with her drink in one hand and my daddy right beside him. When their eyes met, she tried her best to act like it was her first time meeting him.
“Yolanda, this here is my main man, Martin. Martin this is my lady, Yolanda.” Mommy said that whole night she would catch my daddy staring at her while she moved through the party with his best friend. He still came around the park where she first seen him, offering her and her friend money to buy ice cream on hot summer days. Eventually she wrote her number down on a piece of paper and told him to use it or lose it. He didn’t call. At least not until word got around that she and her boyfriend had broken up. My father, twelve years her senior, asked
her out on their first date. My mother would be hesitant to tell me certain details of their relationship, but as I got older, she opened up a bit more. Once they were dating, he revealed that he’d been a Sergeant in the Vietnam war and was honorably discharged in 1971. Instead of returning to Moncks Corner, South Carolina, where he was born and raised, he headed to Harlem for a new life. He landed a job in the bookstore of City College and worked there for
many years. They dated off and on for years, but in 1990 she swore my father and her relationship was getting serious.
She said he drove to her house one evening and asked her to meet him outside in his car. Their favorite song, If Only For One Night by Luther Vandross played as he told her he wanted to ask her a serious question. He pulled out a small gray box and handed it to her. She opened it, gasped, and he placed the shiny diamond ring on her finger. My mother said her eyes swelled with tears as she held her hand out in front of her body, admiring her new gift and
waited for him to pop the question. She said she had a feeling he would because for the past weeks leading up to that moment, he had become so anxious around her. He then asked her if she liked the ring. She blushed, telling him that for an old man he had taste. He was silent, not usually laughing at her slick comments about the years between them. He then asked her if she thought the ring would fit the finger of the mother of his two young daughters. Her happy tears turned into anger as she asked him to repeat the question. Before he could she threw the diamond ring at him. It bounced off the window and landed right in his lap. Before he could apologize and tell her he didn’t mean it that way, she left the car, slamming his door with all of her strength. That following year he married the mother of his daughters. He told my mother the marriage was because his now wife, had threatened to not allow him see his daughters if he didn’t commit to her. He already had a teenage son from a previous relationship.
Despite his marriage, he insisted on being in my mother’s life. He would sneak on his lunch breaks at City College to spend time with her. A year later I was born at Harlem Hospital. Despite being newly married, he came to the hospital after my mother gave birth to me.
She said he was excited, so excited she would have thought I was his first child he ever had, if she didn’t know of his previous children. He held me close for the first time, counting my fingers and toes over and over. He sent flowers daily to my mother as she recovered from my birth. On his lunch breaks from work, he had stopped by to check on us. Before leaving the hospital, my mother had paged him to come drive us home. He came with a dozen roses in
one hand and a brand-new pink and purple car seat in the other. As I lay wrapped tightly in my blanket, my father lifted me as if I was glass, and placed me snuggly in the car seat. My mother, almost forgetting, placed my birth certificate in front of him. He stared at it for some minutes before asking her what she needed.
“Well, your daughter needs a name, that’s one, and you need to sign yours,” my mother said. He placed his reading glasses on his face and read the birth certificate again.
“I like the name Angel, for her.” My mother scoffed at his suggestion, and asked him to sign his name. “I can’t do that right now, Yolanda. It’s complicated.” He handed her the paper again, with a look that was a mixture between sadness and regret. My mother asked him did he not think I was his daughter. My father explained to her that he never told his wife about her pregnancy. He never told his wife about their relationship, if anything, she thought it had ended a long time before he proposed.
My mother sat on her hospital bed, now dizzy from the news. She was his secret. I was his biggest secret. When she was telling everyone around Harlem how she was proudly carrying his baby, he must have been denying her claims. She felt angry, and even more upset that his wife seemed more important than his newborn child. As they sat there in silence, a nurse came into the room to ask my mother to sign some of the forms for us to be discharged from the
“I’m sorry, what is your name?” my mother searched the nurse’s uniform for a name tag but didn’t see one.
“Mine? Oh, I'm sorry, I’m Nurse Aubrey, Ms. Williams,” the nurse stuttered.
“How do you spell that?” My mother scribbled the nurse’s first name on the birth certificate form and then her last name, Williams. “Aubrey Williams. Sounds about right. It’s cute. I like it.” She admired her handwriting and handed the nurse the finished form. She stood, grabbed her night bag, the car seat I was in, and walked out of the door, without another word to my father. By the time he caught the next elevator to the lobby, she had already hailed a cab and was gone.
My father’s wife lived in the Bronx, in Soundview’s projects. She frequented Harlem, so she was familiar with who my mother was and what reputation she held, as being a “firecracker.” If she didn’t know exactly where my mother lived, Harlem was so small, she eventually found out. Rumor has it that once I was born, she arrived at my mother’s apartment on the hill to see this new child everyone was saying her husband had fathered. My mother, at
the time, had a job working in an office in midtown Manhattan, a job that my father had gotten her. She left me in the care of her mother, my Nana, Rosalie. My Nana was very young looking, had broad hips, short hair and a southern twang that made you wonder how long she’d been living in New York City. She was just fifteen years my mother’s senior, and if you saw them together it wasn’t hard to mistake them for sisters. My father’s wife came that Easter, laying on my mother’s bell until my grandmother buzzed her in. Before she could knock on the door, my Nana swung it open with the What do you want? expression on her face and hands on her hips.
My father’s wife wasn’t alone, alongside her was one of her friends. My Nana said her face was caked with Vaseline, an obvious sign she and her friend came prepared to fight my mother. She asked if my mother was home, and when my Nana didn’t answer, she then asked to see me. My Nana turned, slamming the door in their faces, to retrieve me from my crib. She brought me, wrapped in a pink blanket, to the door. My father’s wife peered at me, asking my Nana to move the blanket back from my face to get a good look at me. After several seconds, and many grunts
from her homegirl, she turned without a word and stormed off. That spring she asked my father for a divorce.
* * * *
Juanita and I swore to always have each other’s backs no matter what or who came to the Alston’s house. It was refreshing having a sister figure with my cousins no longer around. I was able to come to her with my emotions about being in care, missing my mother and even crushes on boys from school.
Before church one sabbath, she asked me how much I trusted her. Not knowing where it was coming from, I tried to shrug her off. “Seriously, Aubrey, don’t we tell each other everything?” I knew this look quite well. It was a strange stare she gave when she would ask questions she already knew the answers to. I ate my grits and eggs slowly, wondering if this was a trick question. I did tell her everything, like how I had a crush on one of the neighborhood boys who I rode my bike with in the summertime.
I finished my breakfast and jetted to the attic to see if my journal, which I now hid in a new place, had been tampered with. As I was placing it back underneath my mattress, Juanita came up the stairs. “It’s perfectly normal, Aubrey. No need to hide it from me. I told you I find everything.” I paused, turning slowly, wondering if she'd now started reading my journal.
“You read my journal?” I started trying to think of what possible journal entry could have gotten her upset. I did write about what she told me her mother did to her.
“Chile, please. I’m talking about this.” She grabbed my hand and almost dragged me down the stairs. She pushed me into the bathroom and pointed to the edge of the tub for me to sit down. Juanita sat on the toilet seat, and placed the small pink garbage pail Mama kept in the bathroom tin in front of me. “Open it,” she demanded. I opened the bag cautiously and peered inside. It looked like something wrapped up in a ball of tissue that was red. I went to pick it up
when she stopped me. “I can’t believe you got yours before me!” She swatted my leg, with a half smirk spreading across her face. I wanted to enjoy this moment with her, share something intimate between two sisters, but what that pail held did not belong to me.
“That ain't mine.” I looked at the mysterious object again.
“Aubrey, I know you started your period. It's normal, seriously, you just did a bad job of hiding it.” My brows bunched together as I started to ponder if it wasn’t Juanita’s, or mine, did Shay hide it? I was just learning about puberty from health class in school, and yes one hair did appear from my under arm recently but I did not start my period.
“Juanita, Mama said don’t swear but I swear on my daddy, I didn’t get it. That ain’t mine.” I crossed my heart and pointed to the sky to show her I was serious. I nudged the pail closer to her with my foot, and grabbed my now queasy stomach. I narrowed my eyes, thinking this was a backwards way to have her confess she’s now a woman. In a strange way I was jealous.
“Well, it sure as hell ain't mine, and Mama too old to get hers.” I thought women could have periods until they died. The way my mother had me and my siblings, you would have thought she was a baby making machine. “Mama got menopause so her period stopped mad long ago. Who’s pad is this?” There was a knock at the door. Papa needed to use the bathroom. We spoke in rushed hushed tones, returning the pail to where it was, and tying the
plastic bag. Juanita made up an excuse that I had spilled grits on my dress and she was helping me get it out as to why we were taking so long to get ready for church. We promised not to say anything about this mystery to Papa nor to Mama either.
Juanita started bringing pads she got from her school’s nurse’s office home to teach me how to put them on panties “just in case” I got my period. She was clever, and pretended to have cramps in order for the nurse to let her skip classes and take home a bunch of pads. We raided the kitchen when Mama was in the basement doing laundry and snuck Ziplock bags to our room. Juanita instructed me to place a pair of my panties inside then handed me two thick pads. She laughed and told me whenever I needed a pamper, they would be there in case of an emergency. I hid the bag under my mattress beside my journal. We would wait for Mama to doze off and Papa to finish watching Jeopardy for we had what she called our “Lady Meetings.” I giggled through most of them, which would make her threaten to not teach me anymore. Juanita used ketchup packets she would get from the Chicken spot as pretend blood, and would carefully show me how to wrap the pads and throw them in the garbage.
“How do you know how to use them if you never got your period before?” I asked her during one of our late-night meetings after church. Juanita threw a pad at me and rolled her eyes. I caught it in time, and asked the question again.
“You never seen a woman in your life change a pad?” I could sense she was getting angry, but I was curious, still thinking it was her pad we discovered in the trash can.
“I mean duh, I seen my mommy, but I didn’t watch her change it, I just watched her buy them from the store.” I juggled the pad from one hand to the next, still waiting for her answer. I stopped when I noticed her back to me and her shoulders shaking.
“Juanita?” I stood and walked to her side of the room and wrapped my arms around her waist. She didn’t try to shrug me off like she usually does instead she relaxed and let me hug her. “I’m sorry, I believe you.”
“I know,” she sniffled and tried to catch her breath. “I know because I used to use them. I mean, my mom used to make me put them on after she had to pay them.” I was confused. Her mom forced her to wear pads? What was so sad about that, I wondered.
“Why?” I whispered this, careful not to push her to the point of her shutting down and going to bed.
“My mom got high, like your mom but not with crack with pills and needles. She never had enough money to pay off the drug dealers. I don’t know why they would even still give her drugs… so she offered me.” I didn’t understand.
“So, you would have to work for them to give them money for her drugs? Kids can’t work jobs.”
“No, Brey…they would do things to me. Things that hurt, things that stung me down there,” she pointed to her Promise Land. I gasped. That’s exactly where Ben used to touch me. My body felt hot with anger. “And I used to bleed a lot and she would tell me to shut the fuck up and buy me pads, Brey. That’s how I know how to use them…that’s how.” Her soft cry became loud and violent, but she used her pillow to muffle her screams. I cried next to her, rubbing her back and praying she didn’t wake Mama and Papa. I wished I could take all her tears away. I wish I could hurt her mother and those drug dealers. Juanita dozed off with her face buried in her pillow. Throughout the night I heard her calling out her mother’s name in her sleep.
* * *
“What is your first memory of your mother?” The therapist buried his bald head into the yellow lined writing pad, occasionally peeking up at me as I searched his small office for an answer. You see, no early memory of my mother was simple. She was complicated, and beautiful, full and dense, heavy and light, all things my little mind had tried to place into a box called Mommy. My first memory of her was her smile. I would try to imitate it in family photos, baring my tiny teeth and raising my cheeks so high it made it hard to see my eyes. Her smile, that I’ve often seen followed by an outburst of laughter or a cut from her tongue. I did, through it all, remember her smile.
“My mommy liked to smoke. It made her happy.” I was relieved that it was just me and him in the room. I sure would have gotten a slap to the face or yelled at if she knew I was “telling her business.” I remember my mother always has a cigarette in between her fingers. When she woke, she would smoke these long white ones with brown tips from a green and white box. Newport’s. The posters of her cigarettes would be plastered on the front of store windows around Harlem, with a black couple smiling and grinning like my mother. I thought the cigarettes had magic to make you happy. She and her girlfriends would gossip in the numbers spot, puffing, laughing and talking to one another as they blew smoke into each other’s faces. No one seemed bothered by it but me. I would cough so hard, she would hurry outside to give me some fresh air, and light another one. The sound of the clear wrapper being peeled off of a new pack would excite me, the scratch of the match too. I used to try to practice lighting the matches just like she did, until she caught me and spanked me with a hanger. That was the first time I remember her hitting me.
“Did your father smoke too?” The therapist scratched his head, moving imaginary hair from his face and glanced at the clock above my head. The session had just begun but I was in no mood to speak about my father. Just the thought of him would bring tears to my eyes and I hated crying in front of anyone but Juanita.
“No, he had AIDS.” It slipped out. Before I could stop myself, the words had tumbled out of my mouth and onto my therapist’s lap. He juggled with the thought of asking how did I learn this information. It was the first time I mentioned it to anyone outside of the Alstons and family. I was afraid that if I said it out loud it would make it true. I referred to this thief of my father’s life as “it.” I wrote it over and over in my journal. It took my daddy from me. AIDS. A.I.D.S. A-And I-it’s D-Daddy’s S-Secret. It made my mother lie to me when he first was admitted to the hospital, saying my daddy’s sick from something called Agent Orange. When I asked what that was, I was told he got it when he was a Sergeant in the Vietnam war many years ago. That wasn’t as comforting because it made me afraid to eat oranges or drink orange juice.
The therapist cleared his throat several times, and tapped his pen on the writing pad. He was stumped just like the rest of the adults in my life. He changed the topic and asked me how I liked living with the Alstons. I told him it was nice. I loved church, Mama’s cooking because it reminded me of my Nana’s. I loved how Papa took us kids, me, Juanita and the other foster kids who stayed with us shortly, fishing during the summer. Despite his poor attempt at distracting me from my father, I still wanted to know what AIDS was. My mother wouldn’t speak on it, Auntie Sherly ignored my questions about it too. Mama would hang her head when I questioned where it came from. Papa would tell me to go to Mama with my questions. No one would talk about it. Nobody but Juanita.
“My mother had that too.” She was doing my hair after Bible study one night. I sat between her legs, occasionally handing her a hair tie for my pigtails.
“What is it?” I couldn’t imagine her mother going to war like daddy, so I pondered how she got it.
“She called it the ‘monster’.” Juanita used her fingers to signal imaginary quotations, then continued twisting my hair. “She was shooting up. And the needle was dirty, like she took it from some drug dealer who was probably sick too and that’s how she got it…I think.” I need her to know, not think. I needed answers. Was my daddy a drug addict or worse a drug dealer?
“So, my daddy was getting high or something?” I thought back to my father, a man who was slow to anger. He never smoked cigarettes or from those glass pipes like my mother used to. He was queasy at the sight of blood, so I couldn’t imagine him sticking himself with any kind of needle.
“Or he could have fucked someone.” Being with the Alston’s for almost two years, I never could guess when Juanita would swear or curse. Her words stung me, more because it was something mommy and daddy would argue about, but usually it had to do with his wife. I turned my head to Juanita suddenly, remembering nights that I would ride around in the back of my father’s car all night long. The memories were vague but I do remember him making me wait in the back seat as he ran upstairs to meet what he called a lady friend. It wasn’t just one lady friend, and most of them seemed to live far from Harlem. Sometimes these lady friends seemed to not have places to go, just walking around on different corners waiting, and waving. I admired how popular he was. These women all seemed to try to want him to stop for them. Daddy liked one in particular with short red hair. I remember he called her Tammy. Her nails were long, longer than mommy’s. Her voice was high but raspy, as if she couldn’t get whatever was stuck in her throat out. She didn’t call Daddy by his name, instead she called him daddy just like me. Tammy was my favorite because she would ask daddy for a ride, and fish candy from her purse for me. I wasn’t allowed to eat it, but politely take it and give it to him once she exited the car. There were others like Tammy, but with different faces, lipstick colors, wigs, fragrances. They all would peep in the back at me from outside the passenger window, after asking him questions in which he answered in hush tones.
One night on our way home from his job, Daddy stopped to see Tammy. She approached the car, waving eagerly at me in the backseat. The closer she got to the car, the more I could see she didn’t look like herself, her eyes were swollen. She reached her arm in the car to give me a peppermint. Daddy grabbed it before I could, holding on to her arm as she tried to twist away from his grip. He asked her what happened to her face, and she spat at him. She mentioned my mommy and how she had seen her earlier that day. Before I could hear hustle for the rest of the story, daddy got out of the car. I watched them with the headlights beaming on their dark bodies. Tammy, pacing from side to side with her short skirt, held her face in her hands. Then without warning, a black car with red and blue lights approached them. A white short man got out. I could tell he was shouting but I couldn’t hear the words he was saying. Tammy lifted her arms in the air, then over her brow to shield her eyes from the bright lights of daddy’s car. Daddy, cool as ever, slowly raised one arm up and with the other reached for his wallet. The man snatched it, and pulled a card out, read it and then gave it back to my father. Tammy walked off into the night and daddy returned to his car. The morning after, my daddy tucked five dollars under my pillow and winked at me. I knew it meant that when mommy asked questions about our time out, I was to say it was fun and nothing more. The next time I saw Tammy was in the numbers spot. Rumor has it she used to be my mother’s best friend. A.I.D.S. And Its Daddy’s Secret.
* * *
My mother was pregnant…again. This time with her fourth daughter, seventh child. I was the only one, besides the child growing in her belly that was still living in New York City. The others were in the care of my great grandmother who lived in South Carolina. I did not go down south due to my mother pleading with the judge to not send her baby so far away from her. The judge listened and placed me in my Aunt Sherly’s care. Unlike my brothers and sisters, I was the only one not yet adopted. The system was now threatening to take my little sister once born. My mother’s random drug tests were not consistently coming back clean. She now was preparing herself to lose another one of her children. I began not looking forward to my visits with her. It was heartbreaking staring at the wall, hoping that the next person walking into the visiting room was not Heather, but my mother. I stopped crying when she didn’t show up--when no one showed up. No number of happy meals, toys or candy could pacify my anger. I would return to Queens and write letters to my mother in my journal, all expressing how I wish she loved me as much as the baby in her belly. Mama had faith that my mother would find Jesus, and find her way to get her children back. By the time my eleventh birthday rolled around, the talk of adoption was in the air.
I didn’t understand the meaning of being adopted. I thought, like foster care, it was temporary and with my extended family only. When Heather explained that it could be a possible solution to getting me out of foster care, but also a family did not have to be related to me, I was disappointed. I heard other foster kids who came to our house in Queens speak on other foster homes and group homes that they’d been to. I couldn’t imagine going hungry for days, not showering or having to fight all the time. I quizzed Heather on different ways my mother could somehow wake up and place her love for her children above the need to get high. She marveled at the hope I expressed, and pitied how a mother like mine couldn’t find the strength to leave drugs alone. Heather had life at her feet, my mother was underneath life’s feet. I thought it was hard for Heather to understand a woman like her. If anyone could get my mother to quit smoking crack, I knew it was my father. However, was no longer here, no longer her savior.
We all had different fathers. but resembled our mother the most, just with various skin tones. My mother bragged that she’d loved my father the most. I believed her. He was the only one who I’ve seen make her cry, on purpose or accidentally. She said he was the oldest one of them all, and the only one who treated her like she mattered. Nana said my father reminded her of my mother’s father, Granp’e Joe Joe. I think my father was the only one who loved her enough not to get high with her or sell drugs to her.
The second court date was set. It would determine if I would return home or stay with the Alstons. Mama woke Juanita and me earlier than usual that morning for morning prayer. We rubbed our eyes, and felt along the stair banister from the attic to the living room until we heard Mama’s gospel music drifting from the kitchen. It was my favorite song, Keep on Praying by Bob Fitts. It was my favorite honestly because it was the only gospel song Mama would play in the car to and from church on sabbath. Mama met us at the stairs landing. She gave Juanita and I our morning kisses on our cheeks and led us to the living room. We all held hands, taking turns to thank God for the day, and ask of him for a good day at court. I prayed extra hard in my head for a fair judge, someone who will let me return home before the birth of my baby sister. Afterwards we ate breakfast then dragged our feet to the guest bedroom where our crisp church dresses laid across the bed. I was nervous, but excited to see my mother. I hadn’t seen her in months. Heather assured me that she must be ill from her pregnancy. I knew better. She didn’t want to have another episode like the first family meeting. And to be honest as I became older, the more I expected from her.
The court house was busy, like it usually is, lawyers and tons of people walking to different sections of the waiting area. Occasionally a court official would exit a room and yell out random numbers for the court cases beginning. I looked around at the other kids waiting like me. I wondered if they too were with their foster mothers hoping to be returned home. Finally, a tall skinny officer came forward and yelled out a number that made Mama jump in her seat.
“That’s us,” she whispered to me. I looked around panicking because I didn’t see my mother. Heather appeared from a pair of elevators, waving briefly my way before disappearing in the room. I tapped my jelly sandals against the wooden pews as I counted to ten over and over. It seemed like hours before the same court official swung the doors open. Heather and a couple lawyers exited, all crowding together talking in hushed tones. I kept my eyes on the door, and then my mother emerged. Her eyes met mine, with a huge grin. I didn’t know what was bigger, her smile or her belly.
“Brey, baby!!” she shrieked, outstretching her arms. I looked up at Mama, who nodded, giving me permission to leave my seat. I ran as fast as I could to my mother’s arms. She lifted me, surprisingly, and spun me around until I bubbled over in giggles. She waddled to the nearest wooden bench and sat next to me, cupping my chin in her hands. “You got so big girl!” I stood, twirling to show her my dress.
“Mommy I missed you! What did they say?” I anxiously searched face for good news. Her eyes dimmed and she began scratching at the mole on her palm.
“They took my rights away, Brey.” The words came with tears falling down her cheeks, but her smile remained.
“What-what does that mean? Your rights?”
“It means by law that I can’t be your mommy anymore. But that doesn’t matter because I am always your mother. No one can take you away from me, only God.” I sat down slowly next to her. I starred at the floor, wondering if my prayers this morning were not good enough because clearly God didn't hear them. My mother pulled tissues from her tattered beige purse and wiped her face. Her makeup turned the tissue the same color as her purse. She nudged me, to try to get me to giggle but my eyes flooded with tears. “Brey? Come on don’t cry, you gonna make me cry again. Brey? No one can take you away from me! No one, not even when I die.” She tried lifting my face to her but I shrugged her off and ran across the waiting area to Mama.
The ride back to Queens was quiet. Mama didn’t play her gospel songs, and Papa occasionally looked in the back at me from his rear view mirror and Juanita handed me tissues.
That night I had a bad dream. I dreamt that I was in the car with my daddy, driving to see my mother at City College. In the dream as we approached my mother, my father got out of the car and held her hand. I tried opening up my door but it was stuck. When I screamed, neither of them could hear me. I pounded my fists against the car window, waving my arms to get their attention. When they finally did look up at me, instead of helping me they just smiled with tears falling down their face and waved in the same robotic motion. As they waved goodbye, the car began going backwards. I woke up screaming and ran down the stairs to Mama and Papa’s room. Mama was just leaving the bathroom when I ran to her and wrapped my arms around her waist. She kissed my forehead, repeating my name sweetly until I slowed down my breathing. Mama laid her cold palm against my forehead and began reciting Psalms 23. She told me to rinse my face with cool water and try to lay back down. I went to the bathroom and let the icy water run over my face. I took a piece of paper towel and slowly dried my face. I examined my red puffy eyes, and wondered if I could ever run out of tears. As I bent over to throw the paper towel away, I saw it. It was not wrapped up in a plastic bag like last time. It sat in the garbage pail; exposed with a bright crimson color. There it was, another pad.
[to be continued...]
Sayeeda Copeland is a native of Harlem, writer, and mother. Her poem “Pregnant with Haiti’s Prayer” won ‘Best of the Bronx’ in the 2010 Random House Creative Writing Contest. She participated in the National Council of Teachers of English in 2015. Currently residing in Bronx, New York, Sayeeda is a part of a writing group of women dedicated to bringing awareness to cultural and spiritual consciousness. Her essay "Echoes of a mother : black women, foster care, and reproductive rights" appeared in the 2019 book Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. Parts 1 -4 of Queens can be found in the Exquisite Pandemic Archive.