Faye moved quickly, though her movements were strategic, seamless in a way that appeared as practiced as a fire drill. For months she planned it. She packed her bags, stuffing essential items that were already sorted—documents with notary signatures, her Jamaican passport with her green card and social security card tucked safely inside it, her youngest son’s birth certificate, his passport, his school records, health records—everything he might need over there, everything with the name his father gave him, the name she stood by, because there was no other name. Faye also grabbed a couple pictures of her three boys, something to remind her that she had not wasted twenty years of her life. The two older boys were out the house now, living their own lives as men with women that catered to them, fed them, cleaned them, housed them, forgave their infidelities, washed and ironed their clothes— things Faye had long surrendered to the sweet, doting women who, God help them, longed for roles they were taught to aspire to. She paused before grabbing her youngest son’s things—the things boys would wear, the things she bought him, hoping. Her left hand with the glistening wedding band on her ring finger was suspended over the t-shirts, sweatshirts, and pairs of blue jeans before some external force lowered it. Faye picked them up, feeling for the first time, uncertain. She put them in the suitcase.
Faye left everything else. Things she had acquired here, in America, the place that took everything from her. She left behind the church hats she bought in boutiques on Flatbush Avenue. Hats that once added cubits to her status as first-lady of the church; hats that she once tucked away carefully in padded boxes so they wouldn’t become disfigured, or god forbid, soiled; hats that came out on Christmas, Easter, New Year’s Day, special Sundays, regular Sundays, and all the various church conventions. Faye had every style and every color. Whatever struck her fancy—feathers, veils, flowers, brims drooping, flat, rounded, or bent. They were a great distraction. A loyal obsession. Then there were the modest yet stylish first-lady dresses, which Faye bought on numerous shopping sprees clouded by rage and vengeance and desperation. They all seemed to mock her now in her faded jeans and Caribbean Home Owners Association t-shirt and bulky winter coat. But their derision was felt the most when Faye took off her wedding ring. It was the final act, one of great valor like a knight without his armor, kneeling in defeat. For nothing Faye did could have kept her marriage or aided her denial of the surgical wound that had been there since Katie-Ann died. Or perhaps the wound burgeoned when Errol Senior filed for Faye and their three young boys to live in America with him. He was too critical of the youngest boy. Errol Senior, like everyone else, had called the boy peculiar. The church ladies, who knew that the big house and car and nice dresses and hats were distractions rather than blessings, and that Faye’s husband had been in their beds at least once, felt sorry for Faye and the boy they called “slight”. Even strange.
“Somet’ing wrong wid him, Faye,” Errol Senior said, his hatred for his son sharpening every word; the disappointment he felt strangling the virility out of the poor boy.
“What yuh talking ‘bout, Errol?”
“Jus’ look at him...”
And then there were the women with the gift of seeing. Women from the old country who lived on the bottom floors of three story buildings on Flatbush Avenue, woke in the afternoons, poured rum in their teas, and anointed themselves with garlic to ward off Satan. Women who wrapped their heads with cloths, adorned their bodies with jewels, rubbed ashes on their foreheads, and tell you to wear red underwear to ward off the dead.
“Him haunted,” they told Faye in raspy voices that got that way from all the hacking and coughing they assuaged with sips of tea. “The spirit tek ovah dis one…poor chile. Anoint him wid frankincense.”
“Where can I get that to buy?”
“Right here fah fifty dollah…”
But Faye didn’t care what the spirit women, her husband, or the people at church said. She ignored the hum of the congregation’s voices that washed her back when she sauntered to the front of the church, and the looks they snatched away as soon as she dared to meet their judgmental gaze.
Faye placed the ring on a note to her husband. Errol Senior had a meeting at the church with his deacons and ministers, and would not be home until later that night. For a while Faye stared at the ordinary gold band that once warmed her finger. A band that assured her and kept her complacent for twenty-four years. She walked out of the house on Farragut and Foster, a quaint suburb-like neighborhood near Brooklyn College where Faye had begun to take evening classes. This house was Faye and Errol Senior’s dream house, an ostentatious representation of the American dream they achieved. When Faye closed the door behind her she felt those dreams slip away. She took one last look at her garden where the Yellow Trilliums and Purple Hydrangeas had begun to bloom. They held her in place for a moment. What would happen to them when she leaves? But Faye couldn’t worry about that now. She walked away, carrying only one suitcase.
At the bank Faye withdrew money from her and her husband’s joint savings account. She emptied the account (for everything he owed her) and put the money in a big envelope along with the checkbooks with her name on it. She then went straight to the hospital, and took her son. She dressed him in the clothes she brought from home and scurried down the long, florescent hallway, pass the nurses and doctors. One by one they turned to look, their faces transfiguring into alarm.
“He needs psychiatric evaluation, Mrs. Phillips. If you do this now, he can end up harming himself again. This time he might not be lucky enough to survive…”
But Faye knew better. She knew all her son needed was the remedy Mama Elise used to give him when he was a young boy in Jamaica. That remedy in her cup of bush teas to fight against all ailments, including this one.
“Come, drink up. Dis g’wan mek yuh stronger…” Mama Elise used to say to the boy every time she made the tea. She tilted the cup to Errol Junior’s mouth.
“Yuh sure it will work, mama?” Faye asked. She often stood on the sidelines, watching her son drink the tea that smelled like rotten eggs. “It will mek him bettah, Faye…trus’ me…have I evah lied to yuh? In di country men who couldn’t perform use to drink dis…It wuk miracles.”
Her mother responded with the authority of a doctor. A woman who knew the science of the herbs she picked. For every ailment there was a bush Mama Elise had in mind. She picked them herself, squatting in the backyard, hovered over some plant like she could see into its compounds; the science of it. Its use. She would grasp the plant by the stem; brown, calloused fists wrapped around it like she would do the neck of a chicken and uproot it. Faye took a couple sips of the tea once and gagged. Mama Elise would watch Errol Junior, worry lines creasing her chiseled dark face that glistened in the heat like a well-polished river stone. Faye clutched her throat as she too watched her son drink the bitter tea, hopeful.
At the airport the boy slept in Faye’s arms like a baby. One would never guess that he was sixteen years old, the way Faye cradled him. He slept on the plane too. It was during this flight home that Faye held his hand. “You’ll be alright, sweetheart.” She squeezed his hand, but he didn’t squeeze back. He would raise his head to look out the window at the buoyant clouds; his eyes still, like glass. Gone was the six year old whose eyes filled with awe when Faye took him on a plane the first time when his father filed for them to live in America. He was slipping away. She feared he was already dead. She swallowed a lumpy feeling in her throat and blinked rapidly so that the pressure behind her eyes would subside; so that the tears wouldn’t fall. “Errol, we’re going home,” she said, forcing a smile she hoped would bring him back. “We’re going to Jamaica to see Grandma.” But the boy only closed his eyes and moved his body away from her.
“I don’t want to be here…” he uttered in a voice as faint as his pulse the night Faye found him hanging from a rope inside his bedroom.
Faye remembered sitting in the emergency room at Winthrop Hospital in Brooklyn, her nails digging into her flesh, creating red sickle-shapes between each finger when she clasped her hands and prayed. Her right leg shook, the heels tapping on the marble tiles. It was midnight. Errol Senior was there with her, but they were sitting apart. He was slumped in a chair opposite her, the floor like a ditch between them. Save for Faye’s heel tapping, the silence made way for the ebb and flow of conversations around them: the young receptionist asking a family of four if they had health insurance; the couple with the baby that couldn’t stop crying; the man holding his left arm, squinting in pain and mumbling expletives to himself; the old lady with that terrible cough who kept nudging people around her to tell them about her only son who was a lawyer; the pregnant girl with the balloon belly who was on her cell phone, pleading with someone (perhaps the baby’s father) to come pick her up.
Errol Senior stood up to get a cup of cappuccino from one of those machines that made cheap, hot, watery beverages. Faye had watched him from the side of her eyes. His pants and shirt were a black and white blur along with his brown skin. Earlier when Faye found their son with the rope around his neck, half conscious in his room, it was she who called 911 while her husband stood there, insouciant, like he was then at the hospital. His eyes were fixated on the limp body of their son as though he wanted it; as though this never frightened him—the sight of his own flesh and blood blue in the face, struggling to breathe. The only words Errol Senior uttered were not for comfort—but a searing accusation that, though uttered many times before, scarred Faye deeply. “If yuh was treating him like yuh son an’ not yuh dawta, then this wouldn’t have happened.”
Faye never spoke to her husband since then. Even when they rode in the ambulance, their silence screamed as loudly as the sirens. Faye had swallowed the venom that had been swelling in her chest for years as she cradled her son. And while Errol Senior sipped his cappuccino in the waiting room of the hospital with one ankle over his knee, his eyes on the paper in front of him, Faye recognized the scribbles of his handwriting as the outlines he used for each sermon. He was looking over a sermon in the hospital as they waited to hear about their son. The nerve! Faye got up and grabbed the paper out of his hands. In one swift movement, she ripped it in half. She then spun around, and went outside for fresh air.
Outside, there were doctors in their blue scrubs, a few hospital staff, and visitors like Faye. Majority had come outside to smoke since it was midnight and there was nothing to see in the pitch black of Clarendon Avenue where there was only a Dunkin Donuts. The chilly air wrapped itself around Faye. She didn’t have a jacket. She had left the house in such a hurry after she found Errol Junior that it didn’t occur to her to wear one. Yet, she stood there. As punishment. She deserved it. She had wanted him to die in the first place. Had it not been her intent when she was pregnant with him sixteen years ago? When she begged God to let her have a miscarriage since she was not ready for another baby? Not after Katie-Ann died.
* * *
Unlike New York City, Kingston was leisurely, unhurried, sauntering under the weight of the sun’s rays. Faye stepped out of the air conditioned Norman Manley International Airport and into the muggy heat. A crowd waited by the arrival exit. Among them were red hats competing to carry luggage for tips and taxi drivers muscling their way to the arriving passengers. “Taxi, miss? Taxi, sir? Is where yuh going? Here…come wid me.” But Faye walked down the aisle in front of all the slack-jawed spectators whose eyes filled with the image of this foreigner, this Yankee, who just stepped off a plane. She pulled Errol Junior close as though to protect him from the gazes. She surveyed the line of taxis alongside Juta Tour buses. Being in America so long had made her disoriented in her own country. Losing her bearing this way, her independence, was like losing a purse filled with valuable things she needed at once, rendering her discombobulated, terrified, naked in the scorn of the sun. In Kingston you have to be clever. Though hospitality is more valuable than a one-way ticket to America; one must know how to carry himself, how to be welcoming and defensive at the same time. In this city, people bargain, navigate, climb, survive. Big women with powdered necks pat themselves delicately with rags when they perspire but would be quick to cuss a bad word in Patois at the sorry perpetrator. Young girls with make-up four shades lighter than their faces gel their hair so that texturized curls stay in place. Men wear shirts with three buttons undone to reveal smooth chests and crucifix pendants—gold, everything in gold, including their tongues. The ghetto youths wear mesh merina shirts and Clarks, but are quicker to draw a smile than a knife. The rich people hold their noses high, which might be unnecessary since they’re already piled into mansions on the hills above everyone else. And regular people, given that their feet are planted in Jamaica, but eyes are glued to America, could care less.
A Rasta man leaning on a white Lada with one leg lifted, waved Faye over. “Taxi, mummy?” He asked. Perhaps it was the way he asked that made Faye stop and retract her steps. Maybe it was his casual effort that immediately unnerved her. Faye nodded, relieved that she didn’t have to walk too far in this heat and chaos to get a taxi. She adjusted the heavy winter coat that she took off over her shoulder and nudged Errol Junior. “Come.” The boy followed her into the backseat of the taxi where the driver held the door open for them.
“Where to, mummy?” The driver asked Faye, taking her suitcase.
“Vineyard Town,” Faye replied, watching him put the suitcase in the trunk. When he got in the driver’s seat, his dreadlocks that were piled on his head like an intricate bird’s nest, touched the ceiling. His face was handsome underneath the straggly beard. As soon as Faye entered the taxi, she was greeted by the smell of pine and cigarette smoke. She wound down the window for fresh air though the murkiness of the heat was all that piled into the backseat with them. A Bob Marley song was playing on the car stereo and suddenly Faye forgot she ever left the country. She almost forgot too that she never used to listen to secular music during her marriage. Or before her marriage, when the late Reverend McFarlene—God rest his soul—demanded that his daughters listen to only religious music.
“Di music too loud, mummy?” the taxi driver asked, looking at Faye in his rearview mirror.
“No…it’s fine.” Faye relaxed in the backseat, shifting so that Errol Junior could rest his head on her shoulder. She didn’t realize how tired she was until her eyelids became heavy with the sea breeze blowing into the car as the taxi drove along Airport Road. The sea stretched like a long green ribbon, wavy in the breeze, all the way to the point in which it seemed to connect to the sky. She was home again. With her son. She relaxed in the backseat of the taxi with the salt tinged air blowing her face. Everything will be alright now. Faye could feel it, smell it. Errol Junior shifted slightly next to her the way a baby would do inside a womb, reminding its mother of the promise of life stirring within. He briefly peered up at the view as though he had resurrected. His eyes still held in them that foreign look Faye didn’t recognize; but she hoped the familiarity of this place would fill them with life. He slipped back into a sluggish sleep, again using Faye’s shoulder as a pillow.
“Look, baby. Look. We’re home,” she said, tapping him on the leg. But he didn’t stir to see the shacks on Windward Road that the taxi passed with ackee, mango, soursop, and breadfruit trees in the yards. Neither did he get to see the dense and seemingly impenetrable hills that surrounded the town. He had always loved looking at the hills. And the goats that roamed the sides of the street, some rubbing their swollen bodies against people’s fences while others grazed bushes and flowers on the sides of the road. Most times they were led by shirtless young men carrying sticks while others roamed alone. There were old women selling fruits and candies in weaved baskets to pedestrians. Faye saw her mother in every one of their faces, especially when they gave toothless smiles at the groups of school children—the girls in blue and white and uniforms, and the boys in khaki.
Meanwhile, the driver bobbed his head to the reggae music, humming the Bob Marley tune to himself. But Faye caught his eyes on her in the rearview mirror. Something about the way he looked at Errol Junior made her nervous. Like he had caught him in some lewd act, resting on his mother’s shoulder like that. Faye avoided the driver’s eyes now. But she could still feel him looking. He knows! He knows! Her breathing increased as the driver regarded her son with that look that Faye knew too well—a look that made Faye want to jump out the taxi, drop everything, and run. Faye needed to get away from it. She thought she had gotten away from it. How far did she have to run? In that moment, she was unseeing, unhearing, except for the air going through her lungs and the beat of her heart that was loud inside her eardrums.
“Don’t stare at him like that!” she wanted to shout at the taxi driver. Her body trembled when he opened his mouth, and furrowed his eyebrows as though he were about to say something. But something stopped him. He swerved to avoid hitting a car; but pressed heavily on the breaks, which sent Faye and Errol Junior forward then back.
“Bomboclaaat! Blasted man nuh know how fi drive!” The taxi driver beeped his horn furiously at the other driver. “G’weh! Yuh eeediat! Yuh nuh see me inna di lane? Yuh nuh see man inna di lane? Guh learn fi drive!” He then turned his head to Faye. “Sorry ‘bout dat, mummy…”
Faye let out a slow, shaky breath that she held in those couple seconds. But it was her son who she was most concerned about. “You alright, baby?” She asked Errol Junior who seemed wide awake now, obviously startled by the incident. Faye had never felt such relief, such gratitude for a near-accident. But the excitement was short-lived, because Errol Junior lost interest again, slumping back on her shoulder. Faye turned her attention to familiar streets—streets where the houses were fenced off with wires covered with rose bushes, bright red hibiscuses, and hovering fruit trees. They were solid, built with concrete and slab roofs as a precautionary measure for hurricane season. The scent of mango rose into the thick, humid air and wrapped itself around Faye, reminding her of old desires. Old crushes. Stolen kisses. And that yearning. Molten. Thick and slow-moving, it seeped into idle moments. Moments when her mind wasn’t filled with worry over her son or resentment for her husband. Moments when her hands weren’t filled with purchases and repair. Moments when it buried itself inside her, and slipped a craving. She touched the collar of her blouse.
“Weh di address again?” the driver asked, interrupting Faye’s thoughts.
“Five Plum Road…” She told him.
He drove slowly on a pothole ridden street where the houses were huddled together, some separated by zinc, others by barb wires where the front yards were decorated with flowers to beautify the place. Most houses had verandas with grills, some rusted and some recently painted.
“Stop right here,” Faye told the driver.
“Here?” the driver asked, visibly puzzled. He glanced at the young men, about Faye’s oldest sons’ age, sitting in front of a salmon colored house on the corner wearing merina shirts, and smoking cigarettes. Or was it ganja? Faye couldn’t tell the difference. Neither did she recognize any of their faces. They could be the sons of friends she had lost touch with. Boys she had once seen in diapers. Boys she once taught in the primary school on South Camp Road. It was midday on a Thursday, yet the boys sat around a small wooden table with dominoes in front of them, slamming on the board. “Tek dat! Da game yah bad to rhaatid!” They kicked and shooed away the bony mongrel dogs with exposed ribcages that sniffed about their bare feet crusted with dirt. Meanwhile, their eyes followed the taxi.
“Dis is not a good area fah foreigners, Mummy…yuh sure is here yuh wa’an stay?” the diver said to Faye.
“I lived here for years…”
“How long yuh been gone?”
“Ten years…since eighty-seven.”
“Well, t’ings change a lot ‘roun here since dem time…now di yout dem wild wid di killing.”
“We’ll be fine…dis is home.”
Faye gathered her things—the bulky jacket she had taken off and didn’t have the sense to throw away at the airport. She said a prayer before she stepped out of the taxi and into the sun that filled the day like yellow liquid inside a smeared glass. Errol Junior remained in the vehicle and stared at the house for a while as though he didn’t remember where he was. The driver scratched his head and looked at him.
“How much?” Faye asked the driver too loudly to distract him from paying too close of attention to her son who was pale and skinny with the hospital tag still on his left wrist. In her hurry to get him home, Faye had forgotten that too.
Faye looked at him. “You take U.S dollars?”
“Yeah man…t’ings change inna Jamaica now. Not like it used to be before…when our dollah was worth somet’ing.”
“Keep the change,” Faye said when she handed him ten dollars. The driver’s gaze shifted to the guys playing dominoes on the corner as he stuffed the money in his pocket. “Jus’ be careful. Dem bwoy will watch an’ wait fi t’ief weh yuh have.”
“Like I said, I can take care of myself.” Faye held the door open. “Errol, we’re here,” she said to Errol Junior in that gentle voice she started using with him now.
The driver stroked his beard as Errol Junior made a feeble exit. The boy struggled to get to his feet, still in his stupor. Faye realized they must have drugged him. Given him an anti-depressant though she told them not to medicate him.
“Let me help…” the driver said. Their hands touched. Their eyes connected. There was a long pause between them.
“No, no, I’ll get it.” Faye jerked her hand away. “Have a good afternoon, sir.”
“Yuh sure yuh don’t need help?” He asked, appraising her with his eyes and licking his already moist lips beneath the mustache. Leave it to a Jamaican man to find ways of seducing anything in a skirt—be it a kilt or a tablecloth. But deep down Faye smiled. For how many years had she gone without noticing the advances of men?—or even her own attractiveness as a woman? Most of those years were spent paying attention to the advances other women would make on her husband.
“Like I said…I’ll be fine,” Faye said, though the sharp edge meant to be added had been forgotten.
The driver stuck both hands inside his pockets and watched Faye take Errol Junior’s hand and the suitcase, which she carried to the veranda by herself. He finally went inside the taxi and waited as though to see if anyone would answer to Faye’s knock. No one came out on the veranda. No one parted the white curtains at the window. Faye knocked harder with a smooth stone she picked up from the pebbled walkway. That was when a young woman poked her head from the side of the house. Her hair was in two thick plaits on the sides of her head. She wiped her hands inside her faded housedress and walked up to them. She seemed about the same age as Errol Junior. Or older. A little boy followed closely behind the girl, sucking his thumb.
“Can I help you?” She asked Faye, her eyes quickly falling to the suitcase at Faye’s feet.
“Beryl?” Faye lowered her shades to have a better look at her niece who was in basic school when Faye left. The girl’s eyes widened, familiarity filling them like soot.
“Auntie Faye!” Beryl flung her arms around Faye’s neck. But she quickly stepped back as though embarrassed by this sudden animation for a stranger to whom she only wrote letters and spoke to over the telephone. She peered at Errol Junior and gave him a gap tooth smile and a wave.
“You remember yuh cousin, Errol, right?” Faye asked, glancing at her son.
Beryl stared at him, squinting in the pregnant sun that squatted closely to the land. She nodded with another bashful smile. Faye turned to Errol Junior.
“Errol, say hello to Beryl.”
“Hi,” Errol Junior said, his gaze landing on his cousin’s face, her hair, the yellow dress in which the outline of her breasts and curves were visible, before falling to his shadow on the walkway.
“Where’s Myrtle and Mama Elise?” Faye asked Beryl.
“Aunty Faye, ah was g’wan tell you…”
“Tell me what?”
“May I?” Beryl offered instead to help Faye with the suitcase. When they stepped inside the veranda, the little boy hid behind Beryl’s dress. “Behave yuhself, pickney!” Beryl scolded. He ran and hid behind a tree outside, away from a good slap. Errol Junior and Faye followed Beryl.
“Whose child is that?” Faye asked.
“Mine,” Beryl replied. “He just turn two.”
“And how old are you again?” Faye asked.
Faye hoped her face didn’t change. The information came at her so sudden. So unfiltered in its delivery. Did she hear the child right? Faye refrained from asking anymore questions, so she said nothing else regarding this matter.
Faye heard washing as soon as she entered the house. Hands scrubbing stains out of clothes. Mama! The backyard was visible from the hallway they walked through. Sheets were hung to dry on the line. They blew in the sudden cool breeze that wafted around them. Faye made her way to the backyard. She wanted to fall into her mother’s embrace. For only then she would feel alive again and better able to give life to her son too.
But it was another woman who looked up at Faye from a bucket of clothes. She had five plaits sticking out her head. She paused when she caught Faye staring at her. Her face bore no recognition. She wiped sweat off her dark, expressionless face. Faye smiled and nodded politely at the woman like she learned to do in America when she encountered strangers. They were so polite over there. The washer woman didn’t smile back. She continued scrubbing clothes. She must be new. Myrtle must have hired her to help out around the house. At least the breadfruit tree was still there, Faye thought before returning inside the house.
Errol Junior was sitting on the sofa in the living room. He sat with his back straight, his face devoid of hair and color. He was staring straight ahead; his eyes unblinking. When he finally looked up at Faye, she couldn’t blink away the tears fast enough. Beryl came up to her from behind and placed her hand on Faye’s shoulder like a grown-up would do to comfort her. But when Faye turned around, it wasn’t Beryl at all. It was Myrtle. Her face was puffy and her eyes were glossy and red like she had been crying for a while. Longer than Faye had. She was dressed in a simple green dress with a broad black belt around her small waist, carrying their mother’s old fashion grip that she used to travel with when they were girls.
“Myrtle!” Faye flung her arms around her sister’s neck, but her sister’s body stiffened. When Faye drew back, Myrtle spoke. “I called the house in Brooklyn. Yuh husband said yuh left wid everyt’ing…I didn’t know you were coming here…” Her eyes held in them accusation, confusion. For they shared everything. Almost.
“It’s a long story…ah had to get away wid Errol…he needs mama…where is she?” Faye eyed the small grip in Myrtle’s hand. “Everyt’ing alright?”
“There’s somet’ing yuh mus’ know…about mama…” Myrtle said.
“Where is she?” Faye asked.
Faye was looking at her older sister now, daring her to look at her. She regarded Myrtle’s deep set eyes, her wide nose, her full lips, her heart-shaped face that was similar to hers. “Where is Mama?” She asked again. Myrtle placed the grip at her feet. She kept her eyes there. Faye had never seen her sister this way. Her brash, no-nonsense mannerisms were subdued by this pain that crumbled her face and rounded her shoulders—a disposition Faye frowned at, almost wanting to shake it out of her. For Myrtle had always been the one in charge, the one who knew everything, the one who could solve problems with ease, lacerated weakness with her sharp tongue. Her five feet ten inch frame stood tall and defiant above all things. Next to Myrtle, Beryl looked like a wilted flower in her yellow housedress.
There was silence. A silence that marched through the living room on uneven steps, carrying somberness. The pressure cooker did all the noise making inside the kitchen, the blue and orange fire high underneath it, and the steam carrying the smell of rice and peas. When Faye looked to Beryl for the answer that Myrtle wasn’t giving her, Beryl clamped one hand over her mouth and scrambled away like a puppy, her bare feet slapping the concrete floor. Faye returned her gaze to Myrtle.
“Mama had a stroke this morning…she’s at University Hospital…” Myrtle said. Faye cupped her mouth with her hands too. She had just spoken to her mother last week. She sounded fine over the phone. Asked how her grandson was doing to which Faye replied, “He needs you.” Myrtle began to sob. She lowered her head on Faye’s shoulder. Though she was three inches taller than Faye, Faye felt taller, holding the back of her sister’s head.
“Everyt’ing will be fine…I’m so sorry…I should’ve been there,” Faye said to her, her apologies pouring out of her like a repentance of past sins. It was too late.
Faye had always promised her mother a visit. And every year something came up. First it was too much pride. For Faye and Errol Senior weren’t doing well the first couple years they lived in America. Then it was life. Despite their success in the later years, Faye wasn’t happy, and Mama Elise would have known this had she taken one look at her daughter. So for years Faye sent money and barrels with American goods packed in them. She was always extra chirpy over the telephone, which took her minutes to perfect before dialing. She sent pictures of the snow covered ground in the large backyard, the garden with the beautiful flowers she planted, and holiday greeting cards with photos of the family smiling from ear-to-ear in front of a Christmas tree, or the fireplace with gift stockings hanging from it; but as per Errol Senior’s request, they mostly posed in front of the big two-story house with a decorative wreath above their heads, or in front of Errol Senior’s mega-church in Brooklyn. In those pictures Faye’s ghost face was heavily made up to conceal the dark, sunken area under her eyes and the sadness in them.
What will happen to Errol Junior now without his grandmother’s teas? Those doctors didn’t know what they were talking about at all. And just as Faye feared the loss of her mother, she feared she would lose her son too. Faye’s knees almost buckled beneath her with weight of this thought. It was then that she noticed the empty couch. Errol Junior had disappeared.
The bathroom door closed and Faye ran to it.
“Errol!” she screamed. Panic shot through her like caffeine, stirring her bowels all while increasing the wild throbbing in her left breast.
“Errol open the door!” Faye banged harder and rattled the doorknob. She pressed her face to the door, trying to listen for sounds. Myrtle, who was obviously taken aback by the terror in her sister’s voice, grabbed Faye’s arm.
“Faye…him only in di bathroom…what’s di mattah wid you? We can leave him here. We have to go to the hospital…he’ll be in good hands wid Beryl. Mama needs us.”
Faye pushed her sister’s hand away. “You don’t understand, Myrtle…him not right…please, help me open this door!”
Faye banged and banged on the door. Her life depended on it. For if Errol Junior didn’t open the door she would die. She thought about the night at the hospital. And the days spent visiting him. After he had woken up in the hospital, a psychiatrist saw him each day. Was it an accident? She wanted to know. She questioned Faye and Errol Senior too.
“Has this ever happened before? Has your child ever voiced suicidal thoughts? Has your child ever voiced feelings of isolation? Have you ever noticed there was a difference between your child and say…other boys?”
Faye and Errol Senior glanced at each other in that moment, the questions lingering over their heads like an ax. Errol Senior’s contempt for Faye gleamed in his eyes. Under the frozen heat of his glance, Faye stuttered a response in a girlish voice, wholly animated in her shame and confusion.
“He…I…he has always been normal to me…I mean, he gets good grades, is very obedient, helps out around the house, sings on the church choir…”
Before Faye could finish Errol Senior walked out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Faye was embarrassed by her husband’s sudden departure, the tension and drama, making it impossible to meet the psychiatrist’s gaze.
While she sat there, Faye heard her son—her baby boy!—telling the psychiatrist that it was an accident—that it was an accident that he survived. That it was an accident that Faye walked in when she did and pulled him down from the rope. He told the woman that his whole life was an accident—that he shouldn’t have been born. Try as she might, Faye could not remove herself from the uncomfortable metal chair and walk out. Faye stayed inside that sterile room and listened. Five seconds turned into thirty, then sixty. An hour of being tortured. The psychiatrist took notes. Every so often she nodded with not one glance in Faye’s direction. Faye remained stoic in a corner. She wondered if she wasn’t accented—a foreigner—if the woman would have been more inclined to be gentler, to explain what her son was saying. It reminded Faye of her first time in America. So unaccustomed she was. So alien. People were hardly gentle. Now Faye was clueless about her own son. She watched the doctor nod as Errol Junior spoke. She nodded, understanding every word and the place from which they came. Faye envied her. This thin, lemon-yellow woman, who had only known Errol Junior for an hour, yet spoke to him like she was the one who gave birth to him, knew with absolute certainty what Faye did not.
Faye banged on the bathroom door harder now. “Errol, open the door!” She banged harder than her heels had hit the ground as she flew down those flights of stairs to escape that meeting with the psychiatrist. She was desperate to get away from the woman’s condescending tone when she asked: “How long have you noticed, Mrs. Phillips?” Faye had thought he would have grown out of it. Like children do. Faye was too busy then in the attic, mourning her daughter to notice anything. She should’ve paid attention to her son who needed her. Errol Junior tried to tell her. She remembered then the conversation between him and his father. She was there in the room, though shrunken in the presence of her husband.
“I’m not a boy,” her son had said in defiance that day.
“So yuh saying you is a man now?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So what yuh saying then?” His father asked.
“I’m not a boy.”
“Now yuh being disrespectful. Yuh saying yuh is a man then. Is that it? Yuh saying yuh is a blasted man in dis house?—my house? Livin’ undah my roof?”
Faye’s hand had rested on the base of her throat as though her son’s words were lodged there too. She knew them, yet swallowed them with force; the way she swallowed those bitter teas Mama Elise made during her pregnancy with him; the way she swallowed her rage when she saw her husband’s shoes outside that woman’s front door; the way she swallowed the convictions that stirred her soul, kept her up all night. Errol Junior opened and closed his mouth under his father’s glare. And though no words came out, Faye thought she heard them. For the day the principal called her to the school to ask about the women’s clothes, Faye had been so used to swallowing everything by then, that when she finally opened her mouth, all those convictions, all those denials, all those pains and heartaches and regrets were suppressed by one anodyne: “He’ll grow out of it.”
“Mrs. Phillips, did it ever occur to you to seek counseling?” The psychiatrist asked. What was this woman talking about? Counseling? Where Faye comes from the only help is prayer and herbs.
The psychiatrist introduced Faye to some other doctors in white coats. Residents. They all stared at her son who was on suicide watch from the glass window and talked amongst themselves.
“That’s what you call a severe case…” The woman told the residents in front of Faye. She told the residents that Errol Junior was a prime candidate. A candidate for what? Faye wanted to know. She demanded to know.
“Mrs. Phillips, your child is suffering from…or rather has been suffering from…”
“He’s my son! Please be specific and refer to him as my son!”
“Well…Mrs. Phillips…that’s exactly the problem…” The psychiatrist said gently as though Faye were one of her disoriented patients.
But Faye didn’t want to hear it. In her culture there was no such thing. A boy wanting to become a girl? What type of nonsense is that? Only in America. Never in a million years would Faye have thought this possible. She did everything right as a mother. Faye said this to the psychiatrist too, but the woman only gave her a sympathetic smile. The diagnosis sounded morbid. Like a disease. Faye would’ve collapsed with disbelief had it not been for the woman and all those residents around her. They wanted her son to be committed to the psychiatric ward. For further evaluation, they said. For if he continued to live the way he did, “trapped inside the wrong body” as they nicely put it—and as her son had described it in his school’s parking lot to which Faye responded with, “I only had one daughter. And she’s dead.”—then he would die. Or worse, self-destruct. But Faye knew better. So when she flew down those flights of stairs and through those hospital doors into the bright daylight, Faye knew what she had to do.
“Errol!” Faye was now pounding the bathroom door. She wanted to throw her body against the door to break it. “Errol, please…” The possibility of never seeing her son again was unbearable. She was so close and yet so far. She would bang forever if she had to. Her voice was shrill, piercing like a naked scream. Myrtle and Beryl and now the washer woman, looked on, all clutching their throats. There was not a sound coming from the bathroom. No indication of life there at all. For a second Faye thought she might have mistaken, hoped that she had mistaken. But she had seen him enter. Had heard the door close. The only thing she was uncertain of now, in this moment as she banged and banged, was her son’s name.
Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn's writing has won a 2014 Richard and Julie Logsdon Fiction Prize; and two of her stories have recently been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in Fiction. She's a 2014 Lambda Foundation Emerging Writing Fellow and a recipient of a distinguished fellowship from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers, the Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook Residency, and Kimbilio. Her work has been awarded Honorable Mention from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and has appeared in Red Rock Review, Kweli Literary Journal, Mosaic, Ebony.com, and the Feminist Wire. In 2014, Nicole was invited by the national organization, Girls Write Now, to give a craft-talk on Memoir and Place. She is the Founder and Director of Stuyvesant Writing Workshop in Brooklyn, and currently teaches Writing for the City University of New York.
Nicole received her BS in Nutrition from Cornell University, and a Masters of Public Health in Health Behavior/Health Education and Women Studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. But after years of working in public health, she decided to take the advice of an English professor who once said she ought to take her writing more seriously. She went back to school and received her Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2012. Nicole was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica.