Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

A Personal History

Danzy Senna

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In 1975 my mother left my father for the last time. We fled to Guilford, Connecticut. It was a rich town, but we rented an apartment in a tenement that the town's residents referred to only as "the welfare house." The backyard was a heap of dead cars. We lived on the second floor. Below us lived the town's other nonwhite residents, a Korean war bride and her two half-Italian sons. Beside them lived an obese white woman and her teenage son.
I don't know if we were officially hiding out from my father there--or if he knew where we were all that time. In my memory it seems that a long time passed before we saw him again, long enough for me to forget him. And I remember the day he reappeared. I was five, and I heard the doorbell ring. I raced in bare feet to see who was there. I saw, at the bottom of the dimly lit stairwell, a man. His face was hidden in the shadows, but I could make out black curls, light brown skin.
"Hi, baby," he called up to me.
I stared back.
"Don't you know who I am?"
I shook my head.
"You don't know who I am?"
I knew and I didn't know. I had memories of the man at the bottom of the stairwell, both good and bad--but I could not say who he was. I only knew that I had known him, back there in the city, and the sight of him now made me uneasy.
My mother emerged behind me in a housedress. I heard a sound in her throat--a gasp or a sigh--when she saw whom I was talking to.
"See that?" the man shouted up at her. "See what you've done? She doesn't even know who I am. My own child doesn't recognize me."
I began to cry, perhaps recalling now all that we had fled. My mother shushed me. "It's your father," she said, gathering me into her arms. I turned to watch him come toward us up the stairs.
Thirty years later, and he's still asking me that question. "Don't you know who I am?"
Copyright © 2009 by Danzy Senna