Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fiction Series: Free Verse, Part 5




There were two sides to my father: one I grew up with and the man he was before he died. My father seemed to be friends with everyone. We'd leave the house and every few steps he'd cross palms with another brother who "hadn't quite figured out life yet." 

Mr. Mills seemed to my father's favorite. We always stopped by Free Verse, no matter why we'd left the house. Mills, a new widower, always looked tired, when he sat on his steps at sundown, and I always wondered whether he expected his wife to return suddenly.

Mills had this philosophy: A bookstore needed to feel like home. This is why he chose a brownstone, for his venture. A place where the spirit felt at ease and wanted for nothing more than the word. He once was ecstatic about seeing bits of the underground and rare traditions thriving in one space. In no time he’d ordered rare, expensive coffee beans and sparkly machines for the cafe, previously an old bar, in the back.  He spent hours building a small black wooden platform by hand in which he’d hoped that poets and musicians would perform. The doors were heavy with a gorgeous gold and a frosted glass swirling in the middle. The empty spaces were filled with interesting vintage finds and the walls were painted a deep cerulean. A small crawl space under the stairs served as a storage and would later on serve as my homework nook. Shelves were a great hiding leeway, where I once kissed a neighborhood boy.  Mills offered a space for their children to have a reading hour and after-school programs. He convinced authors, who wouldn’t usually visit our neck of the woods, to speak about their texts and empower the avid readers of the community. Upon entrance, you’d find him in his favorite v-neck sweaters, sitting at an old fashioned register. He was a handsome and sprawling man with a 'fro of curls and a whistle between his gap. Ladies would visit the paranormal and mystery sections of the store, knowing they only frequented Essence or Ebony, hoping they’d catch his eye. But Mills had already loved and lost and vowed to never love again.

Sometimes I felt that way, as young as I was. It was in that same bookstore I met Benjamin. I still wrote poems about him. I felt disgusted, when I did, but it was the only way I could pull the memories out for a while. When they'd return, I was back at it again. Benjamin was an older teenager as obsessed with Free Verse, as I was. He was slender and striking, collared shirts and khakis always adorning him. He'd come in and ask Mills for Richard Wright and James Baldwin books, and then he'd spend hours slowly devouring pastry and Native Son, simultaneously. I was twelve, when I finally had the courage to say hello.

I used to think that love was in the form of soft kisses, 
between hardcovers
and walks home,
paying for my daily $3.25
Chinese fried chicken and french fries,
walking past the lady's house with six cars,
and a fumble with my parent's latch-key
But I ain't stupid:
wanted no dance with consequence,
feared limbo,
bent far down enough to pick up my own keys,
excused his faux gentleman and went inside alone,
but then the letters started arriving,
after he was gone,
slipped in between report cards that
I hid between reference texts,
referring to me:
Dear Jai, 
You're filling out, I bet. Got thighs like your mama and wit like the wind. 
Remember the bookstore backyard? 
Stolen kisses, while Mills was too busy attending to customers
I was too lost in my lust, too lost in your lips
too lost in my pre-calculus exam while 
you still checked the back of books for multiplication tables
puts things into perspective, don't it?
I had to show you:
show you that love was more than fiddle and dry hump, 
talk and whisper.
Remember the book talks?
The things that boys forgot to tell you:
you're smart,
you're beautiful,
you're funny
I'm sorry I couldn't be that for you.
I'm sorry I hurt you.
I'm sorry about the sirens and police cars.
I'm sorry about the wrath of your father.
I saw another side of my father, after Benjamin. He demanded I stay home with my mother and wouldn't allow me to go to Free Verse or anywhere else without a chaperone. My father told no more stories about his old neighborhood, he spent his Saturdays out and wanted no one to ask him where he'd gone. I now know he didn't tell me, because he didn't want me to ask to come. He knew I was too forgiving, too naive to understand betrayal. He trusted this place, despite the hardships it'd placed on his family growing up and felt safe enough to send his daughter into its midsts. 
I heard my parents talking after the night it happened:
"I work with these boys! How could they?"
"Mentoring don't always change people, baby. Monsters will grow, despite."
My mother tried to soothe his pain. 
I listened from upstairs, I tried to ignore the soreness in between my legs, I wondered if Benjamin was in a cold cell, I pondered if he'd learned his lesson.
I was too young to understand the impact.
It wasn't until the moment I was kissing Malaki that it all begun to flood me again and I remembered why I'd spent the rest of high school and college cozied in texts and away from "monsters." I must've pulled away too quickly.
Malaki asked, "What's wrong?"
I stood up and brushed down my skirt, "I'm just not ready for this yet,"
"We can take our time Jai. I'm sorry if I rushed this."
"I kissed you. I started it. I'm sorry. I have to go."

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You can find Erica's books, here.




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