Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

A Personal History

Danzy Senna

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT?
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