Monday, March 13, 2017

Fiction Series: Saturday, Chapter 3





Haven't read the first installments of this story? Read chapters ONE and TWO.

"You've got to be kidding me."

Langston wore his famous crooked line, across his lips, and sat in the chair in front of my desk.

"It's a small world. I'm Zora Hughes' dad."

I laughed, "Your name is Langston Hughes?"

He smiled, "My momma was eccentric."

"Mine too."

He took off his large coat, to reveal a suit. I'd always seen him in casual attire. This decorum was new. It was jet black, a starched white shirt underneath, and a black and white striped tie.

He noticed me staring and looked down at himself, "Yeah, I was at a mental health conference all day."

I raised my eyebrow and decided not to pry. I put my hands on the paintings and writings of his daughter and smiled, "Zora is one of our star students. She's a brilliant kid. She's always got her hand up, super attentive, and quite creative."

He teared up as he took in her work, his strong hands fiddled with the corners of each paper and held some up to the light. I gave him time to take it all in. Parents needed time to assess who their children were in the classroom. Sometimes they'd become different beings altogether.

After a few minutes, I leaned across my desk and whispered, "You must be so proud."

Langston coughed, trying to push the tears back and smiled, "She reminds me so much of her mother."

I raised my eyebrow once more, but Langston caught it this time.

"Her mother wasn't always like this. She’s changed over the years. We met at a bookstore. She was painting for someone’s reading and she was so talented.”

Langston’s eyes reminded me of my own, on the days when I could not fathom what my mother had become, “What happened to her?”

He wiped something from the corner of his eye and brushed it on to his suit jacket, “Drugs. Zora stays with her grandmother, now. Nessa used to drop by and take her out on the weekends, but we stopped that because she wasn’t bringing her back in time for school. The last time she left, she took Zora for a year. We filed a missing persons report and scoured the city, until Nessa walked through the brownstone gates one morning. Zora seemed fine, but Nessa looked horrible. I couldn’t even press charges. Zora had so many stories to tell me of Las Vegas and California, but all I could think of was how I’d never let her out of my sight again. I’m fighting for full custody, while her mom is in rehab. Zora’s grandmother has been taking care of her, while I work. Zora is with me on the weekends.”

“Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that Mr. Hughes. I had no idea…” 

Langston’s tears disappeared and he suddenly reverted to a business tone, “Don’t call me Mr. Hughes. I’m quite sure we’re the same age. Call me Langston. You wouldn’t have had any idea. I’m sure you’ve only been in contact with her mother and grandmother, up until now. Her mother is incredibly smart, despite…and her grandmother is a retired principal. I let them have the academic piece, but I’m all involved now.” 

“Well Zora seems to be adjusting quite well. She paints and writes about the desert and the palm trees of the west coast often, but she often draws the park sprinklers and the sidewalks of Bedstuy, too.  She's got balance and she’s definitely going to be an author.”

“Yeah, she makes little books out of the legal size paper in the house. I know that. If you ask her, she wants to be a teacher too.”

I smiled. I didn’t know if he was trying to flatter me or if she’d genuinely said that. 

“If it helps, I understand your circumstance. My mother was an addict and she ran away with me for several years. I was raised by my father, for the most part. My mother’s love of language is certainly embedded in me, but my father’s patience, meticulousness, and virtue are a huge part of who I am too. Your daughter is going to be just fine.”

Langston leaned back in his seat and gave me a half smile, but he sat up with a different air. He seemed more relaxed now, like something had lifted from his shoulders with the last word that I’d uttered.

“Come have coffee with me, Bessie.” 

I was shocked by his request, “Coffee? That sounds great, but I have…”

“Parents coming up until 8 pm? I know what time this ends. That’s only 15 minutes from now.  How many parents have you seen all day? Do you think any more are showing up in the last fifteen?”

I looked down at all the booked appointments for today and was disappointed when I saw that I’d only checked off three. I knew the parents that’d missed their appointments would show up all week unannounced or try to reschedule when it was most convenient for them. 

I hesitated, “You’re asking me out on a date? How? I see a different woman on your steps every day. Aren’t you polyamorous or something?”

Langston threw his head back and erupted in laughter, “Seriously? I just said that, the first day you paid me any attention, to mess with you. I knew why you were snickering at your door.” 

“And why was that?”

“Because the minute you see a man with more than one woman, he’s instantly trifling.” 

“You kissed the woman that you got out of the car with.”

“You’re right. Not that it’s any of your business, but we were dating. All that’s over now.” 

“So soon? I guess she wasn’t okay with being one of many. I would have dropped you too, after seeing the multitude of women on the steps.”

“I’m not dating anyone right now. I wasn’t asking you to date me, either. I’m just asking you if you’d like to get coffee.” 

Langston seemed annoyed. He was staring straight into my eyes, awaiting an answer I was too scared to say. 

He stood up and grabbed his coat, “You know what? I’m good on the coffee. I’ll grab a latte on my own. Maybe I’ll grab a few more for my other women, too.”

_________________________________________________________________________________

One day, you wake up and you whisper to yourself, “No one is ever going to love you.” 

You feel like you’re taking up space. You feel it in the way you rock on the yellow line of the subway, close enough to be dangerous, but far enough for your momma. You carry Bernice McFadden’s “Loving Donovan” with you, at all times. A co-worker laughs at this and says you’re obsessed with love stories. She doesn’t know you’re obsessed with just a few lines. There’s a scene where one of her closest friends jumps to her death, in front of a train, after they enjoy an evening together. It was sudden and the protagonist didn’t see it coming and saw it coming all at once. You feel as if you’re on this boundary often and so you cling to these words. They are the only terms that remind you of yourself. 

There are notebooks all over your apartment. You compartmentalize:

You keep your weight loss goals in one, 
a screenplay in another, 
poems about one lover in the red one, 
the tattered and stained one with a piece requested for a wedding that didn’t last, 
a moleskine that always felt too pretty to write in, 
too pretty to lie to, 
to pretty to tell that you felt beautiful, 
when you never really have, 
“If you were beautiful, someone would want you.”
This last statement is scrawled in a large notebook you found at a
discount store. 

& sometimes you feel that way. 
Half. 
Depleted. 
Like you ain’t whole. 

Your defense mechanism surrounds you in material items: your monthly wine subscription,  a Chase alert that you’re still financially stable at 3 am, blog gurus' mailing lists alerting you to:

Self-love.
Self-care. 
Be selfish. 
Love yourself. 
Care for yourself. 

At first, they come at the end of the rough days of work. You take them to task, immediately. You find the nearest nail salon or spa, you binge an entire season of something, you leave work early three days out of the week. 

Bad habits die hard. 

You crawl back into them, hoping they’ll rectify whatever seems to be splitting open in your chest. You stuff yourself, like a ragdoll with the words: 

Self-love.
Self-care. 
Be selfish. 
Love yourself. 
Care for yourself. 

You keep on whispering,  your tongue a needle and words the thread, as society starts to apply pressure, “No one… “ 

When the Thanksgiving table starts asking when the baby is on the way, before they’ve made the acquaintance of a good man. 
When your uncles make jokes about you coming-out-of-the-closet, saying you-done-filled-out, at the same damn time. 

Your uncle treats his wife like a distant memory. She worked as a home aide, while he finished his degree at Howard and gave birth to two sons. When it was time for her to go to nursing school, it was time for his promotion. She soon decided that she wanted to open a restaurant and he received word about a fellowship, across state. After her first son received his first scholarship, following in his father’s footsteps, she decided that she would finally do something she’d been practicing for the last eighteen years. She filed to open a nursery in the living room of their home. It was then he decided they should retire to Florida. 

“…Is ever…”

When your friends start pretending as if their wedding plans aren’t supposed to get in the way of your friendship. 
When movie scenes with folks making mad and passionate love seems like an alternate reality. 

I cringe at kisses that are too tender. Everything placed upon my lips has been rushed,  paced as if my lover had somewhere else to be. I have never known the pleasure of being lifted on some raised surface, hands wrapped around my chin, a silken caress sending a shiver up my spine. Any man that has slowed his pace, I ended up with via might-as-well or boredom. These scenes are usually reserved for folks that are mad for one another, drenched in fairytale. I learned too late that I am a sabotaeur, with heaven high expectations. 

“…Going to…”

When your exs start using your singleness to prove that they were right about you, before asking what you’re doing tonight…with a whole wife at home. 
When you start to imagine the hum of children in your home, bereft of a man who thinks he’ll own your solitude.

Your ex tells you that life isn’t black and white. He can still have feelings for you and his wife. I-still-love-you tastes like charcoal, as they leave his blackened lips. He’s only found the courage to say this when he’s drunk or high and away from her. You block his number, but he finds a way to reiterate the sentiment: through a mutual friend, a Google voice number, and his teeth. 

“…Love you.” 

You sew yourself up tight with the words, because if anything dares to come out, every seam will come undone. 

Unravel.
_________________________________________________________________________________

I watched Langston’s back as he left my classroom and I hummed, “No one is ever going to love you.” 

The sound of the door closed something that’d briefly opened within me. 

Langston was trouble. I didn’t need an ounce of him in my life. 

I packed up my things to leave the job and was putting on my coat, when another parent walked through the door. I looked at the clock. It was 7:59. I sighed, took off my coat, and greeted her. She looked familiar, but she wasn’t a parent I’d met before. She looked like a kid, dressed in jeans, a tee, and sneakers. Her physique was tiny and it made me self-conscious at 5’11. The lines under her eyes gave away her age. She looked at the student work on the wall, while I apologized and took my files back out of my bags and sat back down. 

She walked across the room, as I motioned for her to sit across from me, “I’m Kareem’s mom, Lily.”

I shook her hand, “Great to meet you! We have so much to talk about. Kareem is quite a handful.”

She threw her hands up and laughed, “Girl, I know. We’re working on him.”

I paused to study her face, “Did you go to high school in Brooklyn? You look so familiar.”

She shook her head, “No. I grew up in Jersey. Ms. James, right? How old are you? Where did you grow up?”

I was startled by her request for personal information, but I’d started it, “I’m 29 and I grew up here and in Harlem. My parents were…”

She cut me off, “That’s nice. So Kareem…how’s he doing?”

Lily moved around uneasily in her chair. It was in that moment, as she perched her legs to the side of the chair, that I realized where I knew her from. She was the woman on Langston’s steps, on New Year’s Day. I wouldn’t dare remind her.

I spent the next ten minutes telling her about her son and packed up again, while she went on and on about her relationship with his father. She was talkative, but incredibly sweet. She walked me to my car, as she finalized her thoughts, “We were in love once. We’ll get back there. We’ve got to, for our son.”

I spent the drive home thinking about Lily. Was she one less woman that I needed to worry about? 

As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I scolded myself for it. What did I want with Langston and his lifestyle? Was I that desperate? 

_______________________________________________________________________

Saturday, February 4th, 10 am

Our students had state exams coming up and they would be spending the next few Saturday mornings practicing. I signed up, because even though I hated working on the weekends I needed the extra money. My class was settled in and working on independent practice, while I graded work from the week. 

Zora was working hard in the front of the room, her pencil moving frantically across the page. We were writing an essay, comparing two Nikki Giovanni poems, and I knew she was excited. On her first day of school, she strutted in with her favorite book in her arms. It was Giovanni’s “Spin a Soft Black Song.”

I was grading a narrative about role models. I searched frantically for Zora’s, excited to read it. Her narrative was about her father.

“My dad is my role model. He helps people get to where they need to be. I am so proud of him and all his endeavors. When folks aren’t feeling their best, in their minds, they go to my dad to get help. I want him to know…”

I smiled at Zora’s use of the weekly vocabulary words. I flipped the page to glance her comic she’d drawn to go with her narrative. In the first panel, she’d drawn a picture of a woman sitting on the steps. There was a cloud over her head. In the second panel, the same woman was sitting on a couch while her dad sat across from them. In the last panel, the woman was leaving the home with a sun over her head. I waited until it was time for her to leave to ask her about her assignment. 

She was grabbing her book bag and lining up, when I walked over to give her her paper. She had huge brown eyes, that easily lit up like her father's. She was obsessed with the color yellow. Today she wore bright yellow sneakers and a yellow sweat suit. 

Another student made a joke about her being a banana, when they arrived, and she took in his all black and asked promptly, “I surmise you’re headed to a funeral.”

I smiled at this usage of one of our vocabulary words, too. I would’ve jumped in, but she had it under control. 

“I got an A! Awesome! Thanks, Ms. James!”

“You earned it, kid.” 

“You’re right. I did. Thanks, again. I’ll see you on Monday?”

“Hold on. Can I ask you a question about your narrative?” 

“Sure!”

“What does your dad do?”

“He’s a therapist.”

“Who’s the woman in the picture?”

“One of his clients. He works out of an office in his house.We have clients to our house, all the time.”

“Wow. That’s so cool.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty awesome. Why did you want to know?”

I felt guilty for asking, “I…it wasn’t really clear in your work and I just wanted to be clear.”

“Oh okay. Yeah, I didn’t actually say what he did. I have to work on that. That’s how I get an A+, right?”

I smiled and walked her to the door, “Right.” 

“The class already walked downstairs. Do you mind walking me down?”

“No problem.” 

Zora led the way down the stairs, her yellow sneakers hitting each step like a ray of sunshine. When we got to the bottom, Langston was standing there, with a matching sweatsuit, and I had to do everything to keep from laughing. Zora hugged her father and I turned to head back to my classroom, hoping I could make an exit before he looked back up. 

“Ms. James! Don’t you see my dad and I are matching? What do you think?”

Langston laughed, “It’s okay. You can say how you really feel.”

I snickered, “You guys look great. Very…um…bright.”

“We’ve got this daddy daughter skating thing today and my board is yellow. I just wanted to make sure we matched all around.”

He rolled his eyes, so Zora couldn’t see, “Yep. We definitely match all around.”

Langston was such a great dad, from what I could see, and I felt like a complete jerk for how I’d blown him off. Zora tied her shoes and got her headphones out for their walk, as he asked me about how she’d done in Saturday school. As he was talking, I wrote a small note on a post it and put it into the palm of his hand. It was a rash decision and I really didn’t have time to think it out, but I needed a forum to apologize for my assumptions. He crumpled it quickly, so his daughter wouldn’t see, and when Zora was all set she walked through the school doors. 

“Bye, Ms. James!”

He did not look pleased with my actions. He forced a smile and set off, behind her.
_____________________________________________________________

Langston opened the crumpled post-it, as Zora sung Mario’s “Just A Friend” for what seemed like the millionth time. He regretted introducing her to it. 

The note read:

Coffee?

_____________________________________


Erica B., formerly “Rivaflowz”, is an author and arts educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Erica writes fiction and memoir that elaborates the experience of the millennial woman of color. She’s written/published three books: (Intention, Boroughs Apart, and Of Micah and Men). She’s an HBO Def Poetpoetry slam champion, and content & arts education strategist for bloggers/writers/companies.











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