I was the nice-looking, well-dressed woman running down 151st Street in Harlem after school and before evening rush hour on a bright day at the end of August in 2015. If you saw me with my purse half-open and my balance tested more than once, you were wrong to laugh and right to be alarmed. If you saw me trip and bust my lip, you were right; it really did hurt.
If you thought I was being chased and you failed to call the police, I thank you for your apathy. We are cityfolk: hard to shock and minding our own business. I get it. I’ve been you before.
If you were the person who crashed into me on the obstacle course of bodies and bags we wriggle through every day, I didn’t want your apology. I didn’t let you pick me up on purpose. I didn’t appreciate your concern. I didn’t care you cared. I didn’t trust your help. I didn’t believe you were safe.
If you were the driver of a car that almost clipped me, I wouldn’t have let you call me an ambulance if it had been worse. The last place I wanted to see was a hospital. I had enough of those in the past few years. I would have blocked out the pain, pushed past the limp your shiny bumper gave. Maybe you broke my stride, but I kept on.
If you had been someone who knew me, I wouldn’t have answered to my name. I wanted to forget it. That’s why I was running.
If you had been one of those block meddlers or self-appointed neighborhood-watch folks who just have to investigate, you wouldn’t have caught up with me. I knew where I was going. Harlem is my home. I know its corners, curves, and crevices like a palm reader gazing down on it, marking its history and predicting its future.
If you got high on my perfume floating in the uptown air, you could have never named the scent. It was a combination of high street, fight, flight, and period coming down on a woman made by another woman who ate heartland dirt while I formed in her stomach.
If you were one of the men who saw me like that, but mostly you drooled over my tits flopping and my ass hopping, I was running from you along with everything else.
If you were a woman who saw me like that, but you were busy running too, please know I was running for us all.
If you thought about me later and shopped for my face on the internet or the news to see what happened to me, you were disappointed. I was under the radar, off the grid, insignificant and all alone. I would not have made the news unless I was murdered, and I suspect my headline would have faded quickly, if the fact was even newsworthy at all. Then, you would have forgotten me once your curiosity was satisfied to know “Whatever happened to the nice-looking, well-dressed woman running down 151st Street on a bright day at the end of August in 2015, with her eyes glazed over and her whole truth paused?”
Nobody was any of these people. That is why I’m telling all this now.
For you, my little story would have started that day. But for me, it started in my old house back in Illinois, where me and my twin sister Summer and my mama and my grandma lived in a peace I only appreciated after it was gone. A man came along and, suddenly, me and Summer had to shine our faces and be quiet and act “normal,” as Grandma put it. We had to sit upstairs in our bedroom with dolls and storybooks and a forty-five-inch fairy tale on the toy record player. We had to wear good shoes and bobby socks with no holes, and keep them on so the bottom of our feet didn’t get dirty. We had to “Act like you got some sense,” and “Don’t you embarrass us now, you hear me?” We had to “Ma’am” and “Sir” and “Please” and “May I?” We had to keep our elbows off the table and not stuff our mouths. We had to not kick each other by play accident, or mock anyone’s speech, or slurp our juice. We had to eat our vegetables and pick at little pieces of dessert. We had to shunt our personalities into forms less disorienting to men.
“Murphy’s a good man,” Grandma said. “That’s all your mama needs. Soon as she get a good man, she’ll quit being so hung up on your daddy. Things’ll turn around in here. You mark my word.”
She meant no more pottery smashed to a cement floor in our shed out back. No more neighbors knocking to peer in and whisper: “You guys okay?” No more feasts one week and famines the next. No more hitching familiar passersby for a ride to the bus stop, since our mother was a crumple of bedhead on the couch, and her tart morning breath slurred, “Have a nice day, girls.” No more retrievals way too early from our Catholic school classrooms. No more no-shows to pick us up after school when the others were all gone, so that we must color quietly in the chapel as the confessors straggle in after dark.
Mr. Murphy first drove up to our house on Trummel Lane in his gleaming black Cadillac, with a hard briefcase and warm referral from a woman my mother swam with at the Y. He was a salesman. Insurance: life, medical, homeowner’s. He even sold end-of-life care and premature burial planning, at early-bird discounts. Cole Murphy—blue suit, yellow tie, gold clip, white handkerchief, bald head, centipede-long moustache. Everybody knew his face from the State Farm sign at the big barbershop on Court Street, where he arranged an office through a side door. And I also knew his face from the phone book, and on the billboard over the junction tracks past the dog food plant we passed to get to the one mall in town. He first rang our house one Sunday after church. I answered the bell.
He stayed talking and laughing for a long time. We couldn’t take off our tights, so I hated him for the itch. Mama didn’t buy a thing from him. Me and Summer and Grandma watched him walk out to his car. He waved before he opened his door. His engine started softly, with no struggle. Grandma sucked her teeth and called him “Slick.” She stuck his beige business card on the refrigerator, pinned under a green M alphabet magnet. I remember she laughed and said, “Murphy go good with money.”
Grandma gave him store German chocolate cake with heavy cream in his coffee that first time—and the next time. Mama still bought nothing from him. So he stopped coming by in the day with a hard briefcase. He showed up at night with flowers shivering in crunchy green paper. Mama left with him in the clothes she wore to church, usually beige leather pumps to match this one camel suede purse. She and this man would be gone for time she normally hung in with us, watching BET videos or Lifetime movies with a Virginia Slims in her hand and rollers in her hair. I missed her pot of Lipton’s tea with a full, clear bottle next to it. I didn’t know what was in the bottle back then.
On those nights she left us, Summer and me whined for permission to eat in front of the TV. Once Grandma was snoring, we turned off the lights and pretended sleep. We were really making silly jokes and impersonations of people we knew under the covers, giggling until we had to go pee or sneak milk. We started waiting later and later to hear Mama’s heels slide up the steps, the screen door pull back, and the front porch wind chimes sound.
In the September me and Summer turned ten, Grandma crocheted us a maroon blanket, a birthday present. And we were all set to go to Pizza Hut like Mama promised. But a tornado warning whisked through our central Illinois plain. Soon, as we all got on our galoshes and raincoats, the sirens sounded across the charcoal sky. So, that was it. Summer stomped up the stairs to our bedroom. I sulked on the porch on the swing. Grandma finally fussed at me to come inside. Lightning scared her.
I ignored her warnings: “You’re gonna get struck and turn to salt!”
I saw the Moynihans and Calhouns and Davises dash away in bigger, shinier cars. The families who parked trailers near the bridge or at the river headed out behind them. They raced past our winding lane in Jeeps and pickups, quivering tarp stretched over the beds as tires whisked up gravel. With hindquarters up, Mr. Johnson’s German shepherds howled in his yard across the street. Then came Mr. Murphy’s Cadillac onto our leafy block, down rural roads landmarked only by a few silos and windmills. He met me on the porch.
“Heard there was supposed to be a little birthday party today,” he said. Mama swooshed him inside, hugged him tight, and gave one last peek out to the coming storm. The worry on her face slacked down.
I saw two bags he carried: Carson Pirie Scott and Kroger. A checkered derby covered his head. Sprinkles dotted his tan trench coat. His umbrella was taller than me. It was our birthdays, so me and Summer already had on good shoes and socks. Our faces and knees were oiled. By now, it was automatic to flaunt our best manners and forward our best faces for Mr. Murphy’s stops. We were maturing, and we wanted to.
Turned out Mr. Murphy had not noticed we were maturing. But at least the wild-haired, brown doll in a long cream box came with a certificate, not a little orange sticker like everything Mama gave us. I helped my sister pull out the doll. It stood up to our knees. The tiny feet stuck to a round display base with glitter on the edge. We touched her handmade taffeta and chiffon dress, ivory barrettes, and real pearls in her ears. Her sudden place in the china cabinet brought out chipped dishes, to be put away in the attic.
That night, a few shots were left on a roll of film in my mother’s camera she loved. The first snap became the doll we could only look at, never play with. The last became me and Summer over a Kroger sheet cake. Grandma had found candles in the junk drawer. In the picture, we are blowing out the candle. Beside us, Mama blows up a balloon. Grandma looks off-camera, like she hears somebody walk through our door without knocking first. Mr. Murphy took the picture.
The tornadoes hit Ohio, not Illinois. But even when it was no lavender-gray sky or weather horns or panicked birds, Mr. Murphy set his hat down on the table until the next morning. He soon bought a new coffeemaker, more boxes and bags for us, a pottery wheel for my mother, a Hoveround for my grandmother, and more booze for the china cabinet.
With Mama calmed, me and Summer started to talk about separate paths, beyond ideas from the amused faces encircling us to marvel at our resemblance. Everybody took it upon themselves to point out their plans for our presumed matching futures: actresses, Alvin Ailey dancers, doctors, models. On TV, we saw other girl jobs we felt better for us—Oprah, Silkwood, G.I. Jane, Julia Child, Christa McAuliffe, Sally Jessy, and Anita Hill. We made books about our bigger, older selves. I drew the pictures. My sister wrote the stories.
Slowly but surely, the comparisons between us started to die off along with Mama’s attention and Grandma’s energy. After that doll and blanket, we never shared birthday presents again.
A lot happened in the years after Mr. Murphy and his hat on our table and tornadoes and balloons.
My last view of the story is a disquieting but quiet reel. The reel makes no sound besides the tick of a film projector, home movie– style: an early morning a few hours ahead of daybreak in winter, a curvy woman’s body in a slip, wind talk to her hair, a bowing hem at her knees, black tar shapes of her feet carving footsteps in shallow snow on a rooftop. A south-facing Harlem brownstone and Manhattan’s skyline meet a vanishing point. The movie’s film scrambles, then stills on a close-up: little French-pedicured toes at the tip of the very top, curled around a cornice.
My sister is gone, hardly forgotten. Whatever came for her is coming for me, too.
Kalisha Buckhanon is a writer, speaker and commentator creating stories and media about African-Americans, women, love, and justice.
Kalisha is the author of the novels SOLEMN, CONCEPTION and UPSTATE. Her new novel, SPEAKING OF SUMMER, pulls readers into a woman's quest for answers and justice about her sister's disappearance from Harlem, speaking revelations about women’s lives in America and their arduous task of survival. It has been a book pick of Essence, O Magazine, Time, USA Today and more. Her stories and essays appear in Fiction, Fiction International, Oxford American, Black Renaissance Noire, Kweli, Winter Tangerine Review, Michigan Quarterly Review and more. She is also seen on ID Channel, BET and TV-One as an expert in true crime cases involving women. She was born in Kankakee, Illinois, and attended the College at University of Chicago, The New School M.F.A. Creative Writing Program and University of Chicago's English PhD program.