A Novel

Kalisha Buckhanon

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1

Whenever me and Ma fought, she always went for my hair.

When she was younger, everybody talked about her long, black, silky, Indian in the family hair. My hair’s bright rusty red color is one of the few things my father ever gave me, but I wished I had taken after my mother when it comes to texture and length. Maybe if I had, my life would have been different. Better, easier, calmer. Everybody talks about her “good” hair and whenever they do, she has to remind them how her only child, a girl child at that, wasn’t so lucky. And the hair isn’t the only difference between us. I’m short with a voluptuous butt and big breasts; she’s tall, hippy, with the small tits I haven’t seen since thirteen. Now she’s going gray and bald at the same time. Her hair is always balled up in a bun that looks like a steel wool pad. Most of the time, she wears a scarf.

She hadn’t asked me first, but she came into my room wearing my long Fendi head scarf that I had just bought from my favorite African man selling things on Forty-seventh by the El. She asked me if I had eaten all her Danish butter cookies, the cheap ones that come in the round blue aluminum tins. Actually, she told me I had eaten them. I didn’t even know she had bought any Danish butter cookies; I wouldn’t have eaten them all anyway since I only like the ones with the hard sugar dots on top. But trying to explain anything to Ma after she’s made up her mind is a waste of time. I lay down and tried to ignore her, but that never worked. When I didn’t answer her, she grabbed my Afro puff of a ponytail and twisted it tight in her hands. I could feel my scalp burning hot like when I left a perm in too long, only her pulling made it worse.

For as long as I could remember, I had let her hit me, slap me, or do whatever else she was going to do while calling me every name in the book. But this time I don’t know what happened, what came over me. I don’t know if it was because my breasts were sore because I was waiting on my period, but I fought back this time. I put my knees up, then for the first time since I turned thirteen and she started fighting me like she had fought men, I hit my own mother back. She held me down on my twin bed with one hand and started slapping me openhanded with the other. I heard her screaming at me, cussing me out because she was surprised. I think she was a little scared too, or maybe nervous, so I was glad. I felt tears coming, but I held them back. My throat lumped up while words came up from out of my stomach, out of my heart, out of my mouth, and into my mother’s twisted face:

“Keep your hands off me . . .”

That was a couple days before my aunt Jewel came back, and that’s how those police who came busting through the door after the neighbors called found us—two grown women screaming the same thing over and over, and neither one of us shameful enough to cry. That was when I knew my mother’s life and mine had to change.


Ma and I fought before I got pregnant; I left because I knew it would get much worse once she found out. I never planned on getting pregnant when I was fifteen; it just happened. But isn’t that just how it always is? At least if you’re young and Black, or old and Black for that matter. Planning pregnancy was for White women; every woman I had ever known just got caught—caught up in some man to the point where she was foolish enough to drop a load for him, believe all that “carry my seed I’m gonna love you and my child” sweet talk. You can keep foolishness and stupidity a secret, but a belly swelled will always tell the truth even if it isn’t a whole one. The whole truth is that the child was an even bigger accident than the relationship. And a pregnant woman or one who already has kids by a man who’s no longer thinking about her never, ever tells that truth—not even to herself.

I knew the story well. I had seen it, heard about it, been warned about it; my own father left so I was a victim of it. Any gathering of two or more women made me a silent witness to the deep wounds men left behind. Later I was guaranteed to be kept up well into a night listening to my hardened mother, still young, who vowed a crowbar couldn’t get her stiff legs open again—let alone a man.

The story was always the same. At first he cooks her breakfast in the mornings, rubs her feet at night, pinches her cheeks like she’s his child herself, and rubs her belly every time she walks by. He stands outside with his chest stuck out and brags to the neighborhood regulars that he “got a shorty coming.” He buys her ice cream, comfortable walking shoes, and a thick pink robe to sit on soft skin he rubs down with the real baby lotion, after she takes the Calgon bubble bath he ran. When he makes love to her, he’s soft and careful. They lay tight like two spoons in a squeaky bed, listening to Luther or the Isley Brothers or Chaka Khan when she was still with Rufus, and when she starts crying because she’s turned away from him and she thinks he won’t know, he can tell she’s scared he’ll leave her just from the tension stiff in her back. So he massages her spine and her doubt, wipes away her tears, and whispers, “Baby, I promise, I ain’t going nowhere.”

He might mean it . . . until she swells so much from both water and baby that she couldn’t pull her grouchy lips in if she tried. Or until she has it and her wrinkled, dark, sagging stomach won’t snap back to that smoothness he used to love to bump up against. I’ve seen them stay until the baby’s first blown-out-of-proportion birthday party or maybe even later, but something about being called “Daddy”—never mind husband—seems to choke men these days. They shove off their women and kids like suffocating pillows smashed against their faces, cutting off not only their air and vision but the rest of their lives.

At least when somebody’s suffocating, you can tell: you see their faces turn blue, their lips quiver, their eyes buck, and their throats jerk. But when a man is mentally packing his bags, the suitcase is never out until he’s already standing on the other side of the door. He suddenly gets shy whenever they have a little time alone, silently fusses with the food on his plate much more, if he’s even still eating her cooking at all. Then his nights at the corner bar start dragging on longer than they used to, well into the hours they used to be shattering headboards and calling each other’s names. Suddenly the mama he complained about when they first got together becomes strangely needy, and she starts hearing the excuse a man gives a woman he wants to have sex with without having to spend the night: “I gotta do something for my mama.” Exactly what is never explained, but she looks at him with puppy-dog eyes anyway and says, “Okay, baby, take your time.” It’s all over by the time she starts first dropping hints, then actually saying, “You need to start bringing some more money into this house.” If the kids are lucky (and I wasn’t), they’ll be too young to remember the arguments filled in by the swish sound of flying objects, the lightning-bolt crack of slammed doors, and of course the face slaps. Finally the story ends when a Greyhound bus or loaded-down car hits the highway, and the woman is left staring into a window rather than out of it.

I know the exact moment my baby came inside me: it was on October 11, 1992.

That was the night I met Rasul, and the night Renelle Washington came home early from work with a new surprise birthday cake for her husband Leroy. An Entenmann’s German chocolate cake, thirty-six candles standing up sharp and wicked like pitchforks. The whole sixth-floor apartment still held on to the burnt stink from Renelle’s earlier attempt at “homemade” cooking. Three months into another birth, she had tortured a Duncan Hines chocolate box mix into volcanic rock that morning; its nasty failure predicted the baby’s fate.

Leroy and I whispered about the cake while he lay on top of me on their black leather living-room couch, finding his way, unprotected, into my silky young softness for the second time that night. We had been doing this behind his wife’s back for months. He made my heart beat fast and my blood race through my body so strong and hard my baby’s heart started beating too. My baby screamed and glowed red when it roared to life inside me, but Leroy and I didn’t see or hear or know.

“Forget that burnt cake . . . this all the chocolate I need right here,” Leroy whispered to me, and I didn’t know how to respond. I was just fifteen then, still spoke only when spoken to, tried not to curse in front of grown folks or wear clothes that hugged my shape too tight. I still wanted to be a child, but my body just wasn’t having it. So I said nothing at all. I just lay there in a slick mist of our sweat. My head slid closer and closer to the arm of the leather couch until I was bumping it hard. I made tiny, quick sounds until, dizzy from the friction, I stopped him.

“Leroy, that’s too hard.”

My pleas only excited him.

“All this body, and you can’t take it?” His grubby hands with their dirty fingernails pinched strong at my hips, right on top of stretch marks gilded by a recent growth spurt. He rocked inside of me with even more force.

I said no, but he ignored it. I had to push the word out and around his tongue when he finally kissed me, a half hour into it, for the first time that night. Kissing was something I knew how to do, something I liked, something I had practiced and prayed for, the only thing—really—I had wanted in the first place. My girlish noises became natural and smooth, no longer pained and hesitant. My lower back lost its arch with each twirl of our tongues. My breath evened out when I felt Leroy crushing deeper and deeper into me. So I took my hands from his back to his tough hair, but then he just slid them back down to his fast-pumping behind. He sensed my thaw and started the frantic movements that would move my head up again. He didn’t have the sense to know my inexperience demanded he kiss me like we were slow dancing.

I knew the hard arm of the couch was inching closer, so I shut my eyes and braced for the thump. I put my tongue deeper and deeper into his throat, imagined I was finally taking some control. A throb of pleasure took over in my silky softness, and I melted. When Leroy hurt me, I liked it just a little. There were seconds here and there when I would actually move with him. I’d dig my little hands with their bitten-down green glitter fingernails into his back, make a two-inch radius circle with my hips to give myself a quick flash of something warm, electric, and confusing. I imagined the man on top of me was instead a boy at school who would never look my way. My instinct was to be embarrassed, but before I could blush from shame, a feeling I had never ever felt before spread out from my middle like waves. I felt red all over from something else. My tiny moans became sharp cries. I didn’t worry I would wake up the two kids sleeping down the hall because I had forgotten them. I fell deeper in love with each cry, with each and every one of his charges toward my immature womb.

And just when Leroy had lifted himself up with his arms and started to brush his wiry hairs against my tiny spot just right, he released me. It was over. Renelle got off work at 11:00, and I saw the time on the VCR clock was 10:45. Leroy knew we would need time to get our breath back to normal, for the sex to dry from our complexions.

“Did you like it?” he asked me that time, just like every other time we finished.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

He stayed on top of me, unlike every other time we finished.

“You gonna make me fall in love with you, girl,” he said.

I halfway smiled.

“Bet you think I can’t fall in love with you, huh?” he asked.

“I don’t know . . .” I hunched up my shoulders. “What about Renelle?”

“Renelle,” Leroy whispered, pressing himself deeper into me. “Yeah, Renelle.”

His eyes went to a faraway place.

“Sometimes, you know, two people ain’t got nothin’ in common no more,” he answered. “When the love is gone, well . . . I don’t know. I love her, but I ain’t wanna get married. She did.”

I said nothing. I was stiff. This was strange; he never talked to me like this after.

He just kept talking in a slurry mumble that made me think he was going to fall asleep on top of me. That couldn’t happen. Leroy was heavy, and I was scared to get caught.

“Don’t know, Vana . . . I been in Chi all my life. Ain’t never been nowhere else. Feel like it’s only so far I can go here. Fighting a million other niggas for these goddamn City of Chicago jobs. Throwing gabage, driving buses. Shit, if it was something else for me to do here, I woulda done it. I want to see something different, do different things. But all Renelle wanna do is work, get a house, work some mo’, get a car, work some mo’. I don’t know. It gotta be somethin’ better than this . . .”

I soaked up him and his sleepy talk.

“Guess she just thinking ’bout the kids,” I said, and I rubbed the back of his neck real soft, real gentle, like he was mine.

That was the mistake. He stopped breathing for a couple of seconds, then twisted out of my arms. After he pulled himself out of me, his pant legs clutched like knowing tripwire around his ankles, I could still feel my pulse beating down there. I closed my thighs tight, tight, tight, and tried to squeeze the feeling out, like I was ringing a dirty wet mop free of all its germy water. A burn filled my chest and I wanted to cry, but then part of me wanted to keep going, to grow that tiny current into a flash of lightning.

I wondered when next Renelle would walk down three flights of stairs and ask me to watch the kids while she worked her evening nurses’ aide shift. Ma never questioned out loud why the Washingtons needed a babysitter when everybody knew Leroy never went to work. I kept it to myself that from three to eleven, Leroy was usually in the streets but sometimes sat in the house and waited for his beeper to go off. And when he was there, shadowy, gaunt men and women always stopped by unannounced—scratching, sweating, and negotiating.

“You better put them clothes back on before Renelle get home,” Leroy instructed while he walked away toward the kitchen. All of a sudden, he turned back around and pulled it out from between his fly, wagging his thing in his hand so I could smile. My face fell flat again as soon as he turned his back. I wondered then how all this began. I wondered why I first allowed him to have his way with me—because that’s exactly what he did. He had his way, and like with everything in life I didn’t have mine. I would never lie and say he started out by raping me, because I never told him to stop. I had always just looked up at him, curious and shaken, when he stared down at me with moist eyes while licking his lips. I always wondered what exactly he would do next, because I thought then I would learn a little bit about what it meant to be grown. Yet each time we were finished, I didn’t feel any more grown than I had before, only smaller.

In between the roar of me and my baby’s blood clashing between my ears, from the back of the messy three-bedroom apartment with its sad, dumpy furniture, I heard the harsh, rattling cough of the three-year-old, Leroy Jr. It wasn’t like I cared anymore; it had lingered for months and nobody felt he needed to see a doctor, although I had mentioned it a couple times. The baby and his sick cough had been reduced to an alibi, my reason not to be anywhere near the husband when his wife walked through the door. I didn’t know how much longer I could hide or disguise it, pretending fifteen dollars a night drove my enthusiasm for watching two brats who did nothing but beg for sweets and talk back.

Before I made it to Junior’s bed, I stopped to check on the six-year-old, Jessica. She was a sweetheart; nerve-wracking because she was always asking questions, sweet because she would do anything I asked her to. It didn’t take me long to start calling her Jesse: “Jesse, go run your brother a bath. Jesse, go make sure that door locked. Jesse, help me clean up this house before your mama and daddy get home.” My mother couldn’t help remind me that a woman who couldn’t keep a house would never keep a man, so I figured I was doing Jesse a favor by putting her to it early.

I was shocked to see Jesse naked from the top down, her Strawberry Shortcake nightgown twisted up around her narrow chest. I knew she was just one of those hard sleepers who fought herself throughout the night, but I couldn’t help but panic for a minute. Once I threw those thoughts out of my head, I noticed the Vicks humidifier by Junior’s flimsy daybed was out of water. After refilling it in the rusted pedal sink of the tiny bathroom next door, I came back and pulled the lint-covered, flannel black blanket back up around the boy’s chest. Then I sat next to him alone, in the dark, on the edge of the mattress until I heard Mrs. Washington arrive home, calling my name above Mr. Washington’s inflated guffaws: “Shivana.”

It sounded like an echo in an empty house—surprising, crisp, soft as a breeze. And like cooped-up apartment dwellers fanning outside broken windows, I had been waiting for that breeze for far too long.

I was way too young to know I was disgusting: watching over a woman’s children while screwing her husband was an unforgivable contradiction. After that first time, when I struggled out of a dream to find Leroy staring down at me with his pants already unzipped, I couldn’t even look Renelle in the eyes when she paid me for that night. In my own bed later on, I held a hot face towel between my legs to stop the sensation of insides shredded by the sharp end of a rusty nail. I used the same towel to wipe the tears I had cried all night; I had cashed in my virginity long after most girls my age, but I still felt broke. As time passed I didn’t know how to end it and once he told me he loved me, I didn’t want to. I had been taught right from wrong, but not how to right a wrong. Unlike a mistress in the White man’s big house, I couldn’t claim self-preservation, custom, or the law to exonerate myself. I was a horny young Black girl unwanted and I thought unloved by anyone else, crushed ego temporarily bolstered by a scoundrel old enough to be my daddy—which maybe he should have been trying to be.

I crept back toward the front room to face Renelle, saw for the first time that almost all the oranging family pictures framed in the light blue hallway were held in cracked, raggedy frames. I smelled the burning candles, wanted to be Mrs. Washington—three months pregnant and all—bopping about and serenading Leroy with “Happy Birthday,” Stevie Wonder style. After I finished Leroy couldn’t stop smiling at his wife, but he peeked at me from the corner of his cat-yellow eyes. I stood close enough to see him spit a little on the cake when he blew out his candles. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I rocked back and forth on my heels with my arms folded tight. I was too worried I smelled bad to do anything else. Before Renelle could ask me to stay, Leroy had pulled a twenty from his wallet.

“Bring me my change next time,” he said, grinning and holding on to the bill a couple of seconds after I pulled on it.

I said the only thing I thought I was supposed to: “Okay.”

Renelle giggled like it was her birthday. She held on to her husband’s narrow hips, nuzzling him a bit before pulling back.

“Baby, you so silly.”

Then, without taking her eyes off her husband, “You want to stay and have some of this cake?”

I mumbled no and started toward the door.

“You sure you don’t want no cake, Shivana, some to take to your mother . . . ?”

I was already closing the door when Leroy scolded his wife: “You heard the girl say naw the first time.”

Neither grown-up had thought to see me to my door. That’s what 1992 had come to: boys were men with that first hair on the chest and girls were treated like grown women long before their bodies said so. Seeing this, I had long forced myself to look straight through, never straight at, all the things I should be afraid of. Like my building.

We took some pride in the fact that ours wasn’t an official “project,” a category that would have caused us to slur our address or lie about it altogether when we weren’t around people like us. Beyond its status as one small step above public housing, there was nothing proud about another bitter, run-down low-rise having the nerve to sit on a street named after Martin Luther King. The dark brown hallway carpet could hush the footsteps of any deviant. Most of the low-wattage bulbs cased in cheap glass cylinders were too dim to light anyone’s path, courtesy of a slumlord cutting every corner as sharply as he could. He only bandaged the boiler, never actually replaced it; winter nights were a grueling patience game while we listened for the radiator’s hiss from underneath every cover, sheet, sweater, and coat we could find. There was no trash chute; we had to suffer past or right next to garbage rooms that reeked always, more in summer, even more over the weekends when the building’s one super was off. Another quiet, more loathsome odor betrayed the presence of vermin carcasses lodged within the walls. Even the cleanest apartments were invaded by other people’s roaches, though most had given up so it’s hard to say whose roaches they were. Hash from split-open cigars littered the stairwell, and the offenders left the skunky odor of their weed blunts behind. They put their cigarettes out by mashing them against the walls and then dropping the butts straight down to the floor. The apartments were peopled with old-timers who were set in their ways and newcomers who had lost theirs. Nobody stood out in the hallway and discussed recipes or the weather; neighbors never borrowed from one another. Locked behind evergreen doors lined tightly as mausoleum slots, we daily ignored the sounds that penetrated walls: coughs, sobs, sniffs, screeching babies, whining children, decades-old rhythm and blues, midnight sitcom laugh tracks, over dramatic fucking and arguing. It was a graveyard spread up, not out.

It was no wonder why, by fifteen, I already knew what it felt like to feel nothing. But that night there was this boy in the third-floor stairwell. I wouldn’t even know his name until weeks later. He shot an old basketball toward the ceiling with a disciplined flick of his thin-boned wrist. I saw him first from behind when I rounded the landing that dipped from the fourth floor to the third, where my mother and I lived. Without even seeing his face, I knew I had never seen him before. I could tell his legs were long though he folded them into himself like a grasshopper perched to jump. Underneath a thin blue tank top, his muscles curled broad, smooth, and even like a legato along his spine. A red Chicago Bulls cap covered his Afro—knotted black florets just begging for long fingers to cut and curl through to a scalp. I remember I paused just to peek at him longer before I passed. Gray sweats bunched about his knees, the fine sparseness of the hair on his coco-colored legs marked his immaturity. The delectable strength and tone in his calves ignited my electric. As if sensing someone scoping him out, the next time he shot the ball toward the ceiling he lost his cool. Just a little break in form and the ball went in its own direction, back behind him and almost into my stomach. I turned just in time for the ball to miss my middle and hit my side.

“Damn, boy, watch it! Shit . . . goddamn! Ow . . .”

When the boy I liked without first even seeing his face finally did turn around and stand, I was disappointed. He really wasn’t all that, not like his backside had insinuated. His face was ashy, acne-scarred; I sucked in my breath when I saw a quarter-sized circle of bleach-white skin marking his cheek like blush slapped on in such a hurry it did more harm than good. He jumped up to help me, said something like “Aw, my fault,” then threw up his hand like he was waiting for some secret handshake. But I had nothing better to do with my night than join the rest of the world and shove a Black boy back into his place. A flair for the dramatic was another of the few things my father had given me, so I couldn’t accept the apology without letting my annoyance be known.

After I cursed him out loud, in my head I added clumsy Black ass Negro but was too scared to say it. He was a foot taller than me.

I bent over and shoved his hand away when he grabbed my shoulder. I pushed past him and snatched open the stairwell door without looking back. I made sure to hug my pudgy stomach like it had truly been hurt. I walked slow enough for him to notice, added a little bend to my waist and twist to my hips. I wanted to know if the boy was still watching me, but I sensed he was. I smothered a laugh and wondered if I shouldn’t have cussed him out. I couldn’t help but look back for him, but by the time I turned around he was already going. I caught one of those brown grasshopper legs before it disappeared round the landing to the fourth floor. Except for his white cheek, I couldn’t have told anybody what his face looked like, wouldn’t have recognized him if he had passed me on the street. Yet even so, like someone had pricked a voodoo doll in my honor, I felt something.

Copyright © 2008 by Kalisha Buckhanon. All rights reserved.