MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I am a girl but most days I feel like a question mark. People throw their looks at me. Then back at my mama sister and papa. Who are all as white as oleander. Then they look back at me. Black as a midnight orchard. And I see their puzzled faces trying to understand where I fit. People ask me where I’m from but I know they really mean
Who do you belong to?
Right now I am on the road. Somewhere just outside of St. Louis. It’s March. Our second day of driving cross-country from Baltimore to our new house in Albuquerque. I sit in the middle seat of the minivan with the windows cracked. My ashy legs spotted with sunshine. My older sister Eve in the seat behind me. Her glossy brown hair blowing in the breeze. Mama is up front with one hand on the wheel. Her violin in the passenger seat. The neck tipped down like a bottle being emptied into the sink. All of us heading west. A copper sun warming the sky. All of us singing along with the radio at the top of our lungs.
And Mama has a smile on her face this morning. Her freckled cheeks flushed red as a juneberry as she sings and rolls the front windows down so that the whole van becomes a whistle. The wind whips in and out of our throats our eyes our hair and I forget my ashy knees. I forget to miss my best friend Lena who I’ve left behind. The only other girl I know who is like me. An adopted mismatched girl. I forget to be angry at Papa for missing another family adventure. For having to fly ahead of us to start his new job with the symphony. I forget to worry about Mama and Papa always fighting these days. Mama staring wildly through windows. Hardly playing her violin at all.
For hours we drive and sing the sun into its highest point in the sky. This is where I am from! I whisper-yell between verses. And for a moment I hope we might stay like this forever. Me Mama and Eve. A tangled smear of color barreling past ghost towns and highway markers. Three tumbleweeds just blowing in the wind.
In Broken Arrow Oklahoma
Mama and Eve grab snacks from the rest stop mini-mart while I lounge in the driver’s seat pretending I am grown. Beep beep! I air honk the horn. “Look out world. I’m coming. Are you ready?” But the rumble in my stomach is the only answer I get. It’s past lunchtime.
The road is the only place we are allowed junk food. Normally it’s organic meat. Limp veggies. Strange grains like barley millet and quinoa. Snacks of apple slices and carrot sticks. Beet and sweet potato chips. And forget about Halloween candy or birthday cakes. “When you’re eighteen” Mama says “you can eat all the candy and processed sugar you want since you’ll be paying your own dentist bills!”
But being on the road changes the rules. There’s nothing but gas station food Taco Bells and greasy diners off I-40 West. Mama and Eve walk back to the van now with armfuls of the healthiest junk food they can find. Pretzels honey-roasted peanuts dark chocolate bars and more. I climb into the middle seat and Eve jumps in the back and tears open a bag of baked Lay’s.
“Lemme have a chip!” I say.
Eve plunges her hand into the bag and pulls out a huge handful which she then crushes into her mouth.
“Gim-mme-a-kiss!” She leans forward. An avalanche of chip pieces spewing from her mouth.
I crack a smile and snatch the bag from her.
Mama revs the engine and yells: “Seatbelts on!” And then to me: “Are you sure you don’t need to pee?”
“Nope. No thanks! Rest stop bathrooms are gross.”
“Ok. Your choice. But I’m not stopping again until dinner.”
I look at the time on the dashboard. It’s only 2pm. Dinner won’t be until around 7 but the thought of going out into another bathroom and facing the eyes of confused clerks and customers as they try to figure out where I came from makes my stomach knot. Before I can change my mind Mama is speeding out onto the road. I cross my legs and whip my head around. I watch the gas pumps greasy truck drivers and low buildings disappear into a cloud of dirt.
One of these is not like the rest.
Eve is fourteen. Three years older than me and the biological child of our parents. Their “miracle baby” since Mama was told she’d never be able to have kids. Eve has the same thick brown hair and pale complexion as Mama and Papa and sometimes when you look at pictures of Mama from childhood you’d swear you were looking right at Eve.
Eve used to be a lot more fun but these days all she seems to care about are her pores texting or complaining about her mysterious “cramps” at the most inconvenient times. Even now she hogs the whole back seat with her stacks of Seventeen magazines (which I am not allowed to read yet) and ignores me as I try to get her to play the license plate game.
I am eleven. All elbow and chubby cheek with a baby smile and fuzzy rows of tight dreadlocks crowning my head. Where my face is round the rest of my body is what the white boys at my old school used to say is “Africa skinny” with lean arms. Thin legs and a little potbelly that peeks out from under my tops and elastic-waisted skirts.
“Those boys just don’t realize how elegant you are!” Mama likes to tell me on days I come home with war in my eyes. “Always remember you’re my little African princess.”
But I’m not African. I’m African American. It always bothers me when she says this. I was born in Atlanta Georgia then adopted after six months. I flew with a social worker to Baltimore to meet my family and it was Mama who gave me my name. Makeda June Kirkland.
June because that’s what my birth mother called me. Kirkland because that’s Papa’s last name. And Makeda. An Ethiopian name meaning “Queen of Sheba” all because Mama read an article about famine in Ethiopia and decided to name me after a girl listed among the dead.
“We got you almost one year after I read that story! Our own beautiful black baby. Soft as a peach.” Mama likes to tell. “And I just knew I had to name you after that poor girl. I knew she would live on in you. My Makeda.”
I like Keda for short. I am not a dead girl.
Time Passes on the Road
But you wouldn’t know it except for the sun sliding its way down the sky like an egg yolk. Three hours later we are somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but prairie livestock and small towns for miles and miles on end. Eve naps and snores loudly while I sit twisting a hair tie around my thumb watching all the color drain from it. In the front seat Mama listens to recordings of her own from the old days. Mama is a solo violinist. She played with her first symphony at the age of eight. Had visited over twenty countries by the time she was my age and had played in Carnegie Hall in New York City twice before either Eve or I came along in her early twenties.
“I was a prodigy.” She likes to remind us. “But then I decided to start a family. And that changes everything for a woman.”
She always says that last part. About being a woman. So that it prickles my ears. Her voice turning small and grainy as if she’s been swallowing rocks. And even though she has hardly played her violin for the last year (since she got let go from her teaching job at a private school) it sits now in the passenger side taking up a whole seat Eve and I would kill for. We know better than to ask her to move it or comment on how little she’s practiced. We also know better than to bother her when she starts reminiscing about past concerts and recordings. Sibelius Concerto in D Minor booms now from the speakers and Mama’s right hand escapes the wheel to saw through the air in bow-like movements along with the track. Her long braid hangs over her right shoulder like an old friend and for a moment I catch her closing her eyes lost in some enormous swell of sound. Before I can say anything the car passing us on the left honks and Mama swerves back into her lane.
“Jerk!” She flips the car off as it speeds past. Tears bursting from her eyes and disappearing into the canyon of her lap. She switches off her recording and fiddles with the radio for a moment but we are in a dead zone and only a few static Christian radio stations come through. “Sing me something Makeda.” She says after a while. “Or else I’m going to fall asleep up here.”
And something heavy in her voice warns me not to say no. So I start to hum some made-up tune until the radio kicks back in and Mama’s face dries into a hard-smooth shine.
Copyright © 2019 by Mariama J. Lockington