When You (Don’t) Want to Die

On a cold Saturday morning, many years ago, I woke up and really wanted to die.

Before the thought came to me, I was like every other seven-year-old girl who found delight in wearing patchwork skirts, got scared of turkeys with dangling red wattles, begged storks for white fingernails, thought shooting stars could make wishes come true, and measured her shadow at noon to know how long she would be alive. But those every other days withered and ushered in days of sitting alone, cooking up death-plans, and nights of sleep wiggling around my eyes and scurrying off when I reach out for it.

I first heard of death from Ma Joy. She talked about it with the other matrons after lunch, last Easter Sunday. They clustered around in the basement after sending us outside to play. I stayed back, eavesdropping behind the door. Ma Joy began with reeling out names of people death had taken: Urema, who used to deliver the moi-moi; Uncle Folarin, who used to come fix the pipes; and Aunty Ursula, who used to steal strands of hair from the newborns at Fent Hospital. It was easy to pick up Ma Joy’s high-pitched voice as she described death’s frigid and spidery fingers.

“He curls up on the brick wall of Cathedral and bides his time on a soul,” Ma Joy had said and the other women – NK, Adaku and Ifenne – made whooshing sounds with their lips.

“Aye!” That was Adaku, I could tell from the voice’s feathery brush. “My mother used to say that you could see death catwalking in Cathedral’s garden on the night of the Summer Solstice.”

“Catwalk?” I was lost at whose voice it was, NK’s or Ifenne’s.

“Yes.” Adaku was affirmative.

“Isn’t death a man?” This was certainly Ifenne, the brash tingle of the voice against my ear gave it away.

“No, death is a woman. A fine woman with heavy breasts and tomato-coloured lips,” Adaku said.

The Summer Solstice was two months away from Easter so I blew hot air into the cup of my palms and rubbed the moist warmth all over my face to make time go faster. April’s days fizzled out, leaving behind bouts of flu from the early, dusty rains. May swooped down on us and filled the air with the sanguine voices of children who played Ododo-Miri, a game where children tried running through the rain without being hit by raindrops. Only winged-feet children could play Ododo-Miri and I have to watch them from my window, with envy in my eyes. When I was sure they were not looking, I would fling banana peels at them and wait for the delightful crack of breaking bones as they slip on the peels.

June finally came with the rustling of brown leaves. Each day crawled away, slowly, until it was the night of the Summer Solstice. I scaled the picket fence and bribed Icheoku, the parrot Ma Joy kept at the fence, with a handful of wheat to stop her from waking the whole house.

Cathedral was just across the street. There, I sat beside a gravestone and waited for death to come.

It was now way past midnight and I had not seen a woman with big breasts and tomato-coloured lips catwalking in the garden. The only person in sight was a waif cuddling an electric pole and exhaling green smoke from her nostrils. She couldn’t be death.

“Are you alright, your nostrils are leaking green smoke?” I asked as I walked up to her.

“It comes from exhaustion. The whole world is on my neck for me to take or not to take,” she said in a voice too deep for her tiny-bones-peeping-out-of-the-knuckles look.

“I’m Ora. What is your name?”

“I don’t know. They call me many things.”

“Who?”

“The world.”

“The world?”

“Yes. You are too small to understand these things. Why are you out all by yourself?”

I shrugged and said, “I’m looking for someone called death. They say she is a woman with big breasts and tomato-coloured lips. Have you seen her?”

The waif laughed. “I don’t know her but I’ve heard people talk about her.”

“Why are you also here by yourself?”

“I just escorted an old woman to her grave.”

“Have you… Are you…” I wanted to ask more questions but the waif vanished, leaving behind a milky cloud.

*

Two weeks later, on the night of my eighth birthday, I scribbled on a notepad:

Why I want to die

  1. I’m eight and drawing a zero on the top of another just to write eight is exhausting.
  2. Pita does not talk to me.
  3. The other children make jest of me.

These were good enough reasons for me. I stashed the notepad under my pillow and tried to sleep.

Breakfast was sweet potatoes and pap. I stared at my plate and struggled not to puke on the peeling Formica surface of the dining table. The other children shoved themselves into groups and chattered about who drooled or snored the most last night. Some of the boys squeezed their potatoes into tiny bullets and hurled them at the cooks who stood behind the food counter. Pita was sitting at the east end of the dining room, alone. He dutifully mashed his potatoes into his pap, with his fingers, and started spooning the mashed pulp into his mouth.

That was when I puked.

My mouth tasted like bile as I sulked off to the dorm after breakfast. Chy-Chy, the girl who had jagged eyebrows, and her six friends were clustered around my bed when I got to the dorm. The girls spoke and giggled in low tones. I shuffled my feet to announce my presence.

“I want to sleep,” I said no one in particular. The girls looked up and burst into laughter.

Chy-Chy was the first to talk. She tilted her head and began, “Why I want to die.” Her fingers, all ten of them, were wrapped around my notepad. I tried to snatch it from Chy-Chy but the other girls pinned me against the wall. The next thing I remembered was Chy-Chy’s face on the floor and the shredded pieces of my notepad scattered in the air. Ma Joy rushed into the dorm and dragged me to Penance Lake where I plunged my legs until midnight, begging Olisa to soften my heart.

*

Life continued at Ma Joy’s Home for Children as if a child was not planning to die.

In November, when the clouds hung so low that I could touch them if I stood on the tip of my feet, Ma Joy grouped us into classes. The palmists, the dreamcatchers, the broom-pilots, the winged-feet children, and the plain ones, like myself, who had no special talent. Chy-Chy was among the broom-pilots and she would spit on my hair anytime I walked past Aerodrome Square, where the broom-pilots took their lessons.

For days, I toyed with the idea of telling Pita to talk to me before it was too late and warning the other children who smeared chilli sauce on my pillow to be good because it was only a matter of time before I will die and they would have to find another child to pick on. I wanted so many things to happen – the sun to nest beside my window, the walls to crumble, the sky to cave, something that will tell the world that I was about to die. Nothing happened. The days continued to slide past, smoothly, without bumps.

Before January, the urge of dying became unattractive because I could not figure out how to die. I thought of lying under the sun, hoping to smoulder into flakes of charred flesh, but that would require me climbing far up into the sky, where the sun shone the most. I thought of jabbing a blunt knife in my chest, but that would hurt real bad. So, I decided to ask Ma Joy how my real mother died. It was on a Saturday morning and I was helping her spread the laundry in the backyard.

Ma Joy was the chief matron and owner of Ma Joy’s Home for Children. She was rotund, and had flabby arms that swung like tennis balls when she clapped during morning prayers. They said she used to be married until her husband joined the nightcrawlers. After her marriage ended, she built the home and dedicated her life to taking care of children whom the world did not really want or plan for.

“Ma Joy, how did my mother die?” I asked.

“Are you not supposed to be with the other children? Go and play Ora!” Ma Joy said as she sorted the socks according to their colours.

“They don’t like playing with me. They say I smell really bad, like rotten sardine.”

“Poor girl.” Ma Joy drew me to her bosom and tugged at my cheeks. “You don’t smell that bad. You children smell the same. You all smell of Ma Joy’s love. I’ll try and get you scented soap. Do you want Lux or Eva?”

“I don’t need any scented soap, I want to know how my mother died.”

“Tiny devil,” she cursed under her breath. “I am telling you nothing.”

“The other children have stories of how their Ma and Pa died. I don’t have any story. That’s why they don’t play with me, they say I’m different.”

“You will know when you will know. Who even told you that your mother is dead?”

*

A week later, I stumbled on a yellow book with ripped middle and dog-eared pages. The spine was stained with ink so I could not see the title. The book told the story of a man who died by jumping into a river with a stone tied around his neck. This is it, I thought to myself, I have finally found a way to die.

I sneaked out of the house and went to River Bambu the next day. When I got to the riverside, I realized that I forgot to bring along a rope and stone. So, instead of dying, I stared at the vast expanse of the river. A little fish that was washed ashore on the river’s bank wriggled on the sand, struggling for the same life I wanted to end. I threw the fish back into the river and headed home.

Pita was in the playroom, gaping at the painting on the wall, the one with warring horsemen carrying bronze tridents, when I got back. He sat cross-legged on the linoleum. Dried spittle caked the corners of his lips. Chy-Chy was doing tap-dance at the veranda, Ezinne, the girl who pulls at my hair on nights when Ojuju Calabar visits, was knitting a sweater, and the other children were playing hula-hoops in front of the tap. Nobody noticed or seemed to care that I had gone to the river to die.

“Gather around children!” Ma Joy hollered at us after lunch. “We need to tidy up the house and dress up because we are expecting some important guests.”

Important guests visit us from time to time. Some of them are interested in taking pictures of themselves donating food to us, pictures that would later appear on the front page of the copies of Saturday Moon Ma Joy stashed on top of the shelf. Others came with coconut chips and tried to cajole us into gifting them some of our goodness for their children at home. The rest came to take some of us away. I never liked the show we pulled at our important guests; singing and answering silly questions like “What is your favourite colour?”, “Can you spell onomatopoeia?”, “Do you like dogs more than cats?”.

I sneaked up off the dorm and hid under my bed until the important guests left.

*

Well, these things happened before a woman visited the home and said she was my mother. Ma Joy took her upstairs where they talked in hushed whispers for hours on end. It happened so fast and before I could say twitch, I was en route to a new life. I only had the chance to say goodbye to Pita. His back was slouched against the staircase’s banister. I grabbed his face, made pyout-pyout sounds on his lips with my own lips, hurried downstairs and left with Rose.

My mother’s name is Rose, at least that was what she told me. We lived on the top floor of an old apartment at Forlorn Avenue. Our home smelt of nail polish in the day and tobacco at night. Rose never left the house during the day. She folded herself into a ball, sat by the window, polished her nails and sang away the day into darkness.

“How are my nails? Tell me Ora, how are they?” Rose asked one afternoon.

“They look nice, like red rose.”

“I don’t want nice. Now wait, pretend you are a man. See these nails with manly eyes.”

I feigned a masculine voice. “Damn babe, you can wake a man in life-support.”

“Life-support? You are drab, just like your father, Ibeh. Go boil some noodles for us. I am so tired.”

The nightcrawlers Rose brings home every night, from the bar down the street, and not polishing her nails all day, is what tires her out. The nightcrawlers come in different shades; nightcrawlers with names and nightcrawlers without names, nightcrawlers who wore wedding rings and nightcrawlers who did not wear wedding rings, nightcrawlers with warts on their nose and nightcrawlers without warts on their nose, nightcrawlers who came in snakeskin-shoes and nightcrawlers who wore shoes with gaping soles, tall, fair and old nightcrawlers, and short, dark and young nightcrawlers.

Every Saturday, I would sneak out of the house to Ma Joy’s Home for Children to see Pita. He, Pita, had not started talking and still gaped at that painting of warring horsemen in the playroom. I was fifteen now, old enough to know that the unshed tears strung up Pita’s eyebrows as he mashed the ugba and okpa I brought during my visits meant that he was between worlds.

“I have had kids like him, but they all got better. They learnt how to talk. His own is different.” Ma Joy would say.

*

A few weeks after I turned twenty, a nightcrawler knocked on our door.

“Hey, you Rose’s girl?” he asked as I opened the door.

“Yes. She’s putting on some clothes.”

“Nice curves.”

“Wrong lane.”

“Tough. I love girls like you. How about I do you? I’ll pay you twice what I pay your mom.”

His hands edged closer and nudged my breast. I shoved him and slammed the door on his face.

“Where is Nedu?” Rose asked when she came out of her room. “I heard his voice just now.” She opened the front door. “Nedu.”

“He left. I slammed the door on his…”

“You what?” Rose grabbed my left arm and twisted it.

“He tried to touch me.”

“I told you my customers are never wrong.”

“He tried to touch me.”

He tried to touch me.” Rose’s mimicry was stinging. “What do you think they do to me? That’s how I get money put warm food on the table. So, my customers can touch you if they want to.”

“I am not you,” I said with all the rage I could muster. My voice rang false because I knew that plain girls like Rose and me, who could not fly or read palms or become witches, end like you.

“You dare judge me, you silly imp. Damn it, Ibeh! You’re just like Ibeh, a bag of biting judgment.”

“Since you talk so much about me resembling this man Ibeh, why don’t you take me to him?”

“Why should I?”

“I’m going to find him.”

“You will never find him.”

*

Our house became tinged with unsaid words after that night. Rose still sat by the window, polishing her nails all day, and I still cooked noodles for lunch. It was how the nightcrawlers visited that changed. They stopped knocking on the front door and started throwing pebbles on Rose’s window. I moved out of Forlorn Avenue a month later into a cabin at Mushroom Groove. Rose made sure I visited all the neighbours before leaving.

“You must make them understand that I did not throw you out,” Rose had said, “that you left on your own terms.”

A week after I moved out, I got a job at Akwa’s Place, a small shop where memories are mended. Akwa had looked at me during the interview and said, “Girls like you, plain girls who don’t have magic, don’t do this type of work. But I like your spirit, you will learn.” Two days after the interview, I found a tiny envelope saying I could begin work the next day.

Akwa’s Place is at the edge of Ré Valley. The shop looked like an abandoned granary. Peeling paint and monstrous machines with little or no use pressed against the crumbling walls. The customers wanted different things; a potbellied man needed a few stitches here and there so that he could forget that his wife cheated on him, a woman with owlish eyes wanted all the memories she shared with her dead husband to be cut out. And each memory came with a different texture. Memories that came in silk, cotton and wool were the easiest to fix. Gossamer memories were slippery and, if one was not careful, could be marred forever. Ankara memories were the hardest; the intricately patterned colours sliding into themselves flooded one’s eyes.

*

Okwudili came to mend his memories on the night Amuma, the mad soothsayer, broke his chains and went up the hills to spell doom on the whole town. I was the only one in the shop when he came in. Akwa and the other three girls had gone home. I loved staying after work to listen to the unwanted memories of customers conversing in the dustbin. Okwudili’s memory came in a flimsy rayon rag. It was the first synthetic memory I have ever seen. He said he wanted to mend his memory but he had no memory to mend because his was an entangled mass of other people’s memories.

“This is strange. I have never worked on anything like this before.” My voice sailed through the room.

“I am a gravedigger.” Okwudili said. “The ghosts are our only memory.” He let out a strange laugh.

“I’m sorry I can’t mend this. But check back tomorrow morning and show it to my boss.”

Although I could not mend his memory, Okwudili volunteered to walk me home. I declined at first but finally accepted the offer. I invited him in when we got to my house, offered him roasted coffee beans for the long night ahead of him and let him wash himself in my bathroom. At midnight, he slung his tool bag across his shoulder and left for the cemetery.

*

“I met someone. His name is Okwudili. He is a gravedigger,” I whispered to Pita when I visited him the next Saturday. “I know, a gravedigger is not something to make a fuss about but I think I like him.”

Pita’s eyes remained glued to the painting on the wall.

*

Okwudili agreed to move in with me after a month. We would take long walks along Vicissitude Bridge in the evenings and talk about our dead hopes and dreams. He wanted to be an alchemist and I wanted to be a broom-pilot. We decided to get married two months after he moved in. At night, when Okwudili pulled off his skin to scrub off the souls of dead people that clung to it, I counted his ribs and checked if his heartbeats were real, to be sure, to make sense of everything.

“Do you think I deserve happiness?” I asked Pita on my next visit after the wedding. He looked up from the painting and started crying.

But happiness came. Happiness packaged in crinkling paper. I became pregnant.

“I’m pregnant, Pita. A little something is growing inside me.”

During lunch breaks I would tell Akwa that I wanted something terrible to happen to me. Something, like her sacking me, or me losing the baby, that would jeer me back to the hurtful reality I was used to. For days, I waited for my nightmares to come true but what came was bone-splitting labour pain.

*

We have a son, Okwudili. He has your nose.

This was the line I memorized to tell Okwudili when he came back from work. But Okwudili did not come back in the morning after the baby was born or in all the mornings that will follow. They said he died in a ghost-fight. A ghost sank its fangs into Okwudili’s heart. I was not allowed to see his body. They buried him beside the ghost that killed him.

My neighbours tried to reach Rose but she was out of town. They finally reached Ma Joy who promised to come over the next day. The pale, blue postnatal gown continued to burn irritation into my skin and my son’s cries sounded like the wailing of poached dragons.

Ma Joy came to the next day. And while she mopped the floor, bathed my son and washed all the dirty clothes, I lay flat on my belly, polishing my nails.

“You have to pull yourself together. You have a son now,” Ma Joy told me on her fourth day of stay.

“I’m going to take him to the home. Ma Joy, you can take care of him.”

“You would do no such thing! You want to be like your mother.”

“My mother?”

“Yes. Throw your child into a home when you lose your husband.”

“My father is not dead. His name is Ibeh. Rose just does not want to tell me where he is.”

“You want your son to end up like you. One minute he is in Ma Joy’s Home for Children and the next minute he is in your house where you lie to him about his father.”

The baby, as if sensing that we were talking about him, cooed and started kicking the air with his legs. I edged closer to his cot.

“He has Okwudili’s eyes and his nose,” I gasped. “I will call him Okwudili. He will become my new husband.” I laughed, as much from exhaustion as joy.

“I guess my work here is done. Ora, the children at the home need me.”

“Don’t go, I might do something crazy to myself.”

“No you won’t.”

*

I resumed work at Akwa’s Place after I weaned the baby. Akwa and the other girls bleeped out death and husband when they talked to me. I was given less work and allowed to go home earlier than usual.

On Friday, two skinny boys, Ake and Eke, came to mend their memories. Eke had forgotten to invite Ake for Jollof rice, last Sunday. They wanted to cut out the event and pretend it never happened. I wound the scissors around the silk material of their memories, and was done in no time. I went back home in the evening filled with thoughts of how some memories could not be cut out.

*

“Look. Baby. Ora bring baby to the house!” Pita screamed the instant I walked in with little Okwudili. Everyone stood still. Pita talked. I rushed to his side and hugged him. Ma Joy hurried out of the kitchen, wiping her palms on the apron tied around her waist.

“He talked! Ma Joy, Pita talked!”

I told Ma Joy to take care of Okwudili while Pita and I took a walk.

“I like Ora,” Pita whispered into my ears as we went outside.

“Ora likes you too,” I replied.

Pita and I, continued our journey to River Bambu, where I had gone to die many years ago.




The Touch Thief

The game started with a stranger nudging the man’s left arm from the armrest. Another day he might have fought for the spot. But he had been ruminating, and the sensation came from nowhere. He felt his neighbour’s right arm snuggle its elbow against his left arm. When the Tube jolted, a hand hopped into the spot where his own had been. A warm form lay against his arm, which now hovered beside the armrest, floating in mid-air. There had been no struggle, no contest; only sensation.

The moment reminded the man of a Bible story from a middle-school assembly. Jesus was walking through a crowd when he felt someone touch the hem of his clothes. But it wasn’t because Jesus saw them that he knew he’d been touched. The Bible said the prophet felt his “power had gone out from him”.

Back on the Underground, the man has no time for qi or reiki or chakras or “power”. But when the stranger’s coat sleeve had touched his own, he too had felt energy flow away from him like an out-breath. All day he was heady and light: he couldn’t stop thinking about the feeling of the stranger’s arm on his. It was not long after this that the man began to play.

These were the rules of touch thievery. First of all, a game must only occur between the hours of 6.30am and 9.30pm on the London Underground. Buses are an unsuitable ground for play (too great a risk of injury), likewise trains (pitch too large) and the Overground (implausibility of playing by daylight).

The second law of touch thievery is: thieves must pick on someone similar in size to themselves, or larger. Thieves cannot subvert their play into exercises in intimidation or harassment: pensioners, children, wheelchair users and pregnant women are out of bounds; anyone who might hesitate to complain or retaliate. For the man – at a respectable 5′ 10″ – the second rule relegates swathes of the general populace. Chivalric code sets the tone.

There’s no question of the game hurting anyone: nine times out of ten, the subject doesn’t even notice he or she is a goal. For every subject who recoils from his touch (as if his hand is a wet umbrella or a dog’s tongue), another welcomes him with a smile. Perhaps they too are playing his game.

Thievery was down to a mixture of skill and luck. At first, it was a game without rules. He learned his hunting ground over a number of years, and knew the best places to play, rest, look and hide, where the yellow line at the edge of the platform was scuffed faint, and how to perfect his camouflage.

After a while, the game became more sophisticated. Like a Go player he looked for sequences, not moves – heading to a quiet section of the train, knowing body language there would be more relaxed because the carriage was less crowded. In packed carriages, you could start a fight by brushing against someone’s backpack. But in adequately-filled carriages, a thief could run one hand along a stranger’s entire thigh without so much as an apologetic glance. The thief replays memories of his greatest coups in his head: the tall gentleman in his grasp as he tripped when the train braked; the young sweaty squash player who fell into him and accidentally wrapped his arms around the thief in order to catch himself.

Before the game, he’s been in what he’d now call a crisis. There had been something else that occupied him: a “love interest”, as a synopsis of his life story might have it.

They would play a game too. They could win whole tournaments just with the touch of a fingertip on the back of a hand and a palm in the small of a back. That’s how it felt, anyway – terraces packed with rattlers and screaming kids in stripy scarves jubilating inside him when she’d brush against him, hug him, pick lint off his clothes or find another pretext to touch.

But she never left her boyfriend, and eventually the stadium inside his chest emptied. Now in his life there comes an occasional haircut or a party, or sometimes even a date. Activity keeps him from the game. He forgets to play for a day or two, and becomes one of the quiet commuters instead: reading a novel or listening to his headphones, lifting his head to look for a person to give his seat up to.

But thievery always pulls him back in. The daily routine of Tube, work, gym, home wears thin. He longs for the simplicity of this contact solitaire: one set of rules, one player. And so, as if it never stopped, the game began again. After work, rich with good play, he takes home touches like bright prizes.

His most audacious win, and the most serendipitous too, took place off-court, in a Pret near the building he worked in. By the fridges a woman his mother’s age was standing alone, reaching for a sandwich. The thief walked towards the subject, who looked with curiosity back at him. As the subject’s hand moved towards the packet, the touch thief covered hers in his.

Most civilians would laugh off a moment like that, and a rare few would escalate the contact by fighting back. But the touch thief locked eyes with his subject and the hands, like actors, held one another for a beat. He met the woman’s gaze for a count of three before releasing and walking straight out. That moment, polished to brilliance with frequent recollection, sustained him for weeks.

His favourite match was when a man in his thirties actually embraced him. The thief had been looking for a new subject, one sultry night in September. After an easy, boring day at work, he took the long route home: two trains rather than three, it had an extra change to the quick route home, and the fifteen extra minutes increased his chances of a satisfying play. He had no other plans that night. The first train was packed full of nervy tourists, whose glances were quick as a shoal of fish. They were only looking for pickpockets, he knew, but it felt almost patronising as one after another met his gaze, and smiled at him, assured by his clean suit and shirt.

The second train was oddly quiet. Empty trains at rush hour were the worst: passengers sat and stood in haloes of absent-mindedness, tiredness or outright despair. You only had to graze the skin of these haloes to earn a glare. Odds of a good game narrowed again.

He had just boarded the third train when a jolt sent one passenger falling into his arms. He felt an electric thrill as he felt the man’s shoulder thud against his chest, faster than his own reactions. The passenger jerked away, gaze plunging to the carriage floor. Sorry, sorry, the man whispered, face flushing, and the touch thief imagined he could smell an anxious sweat springing up from his opponent. The passenger bolted off at the next stop. The touch thief rode home in an awed grace, still tasting the sweet random play of the night’s game.

The game’s obsessive nature has had a slow, empathising effect on its player. For example, now when he sees stories about celebrity shoplifters, he knows why they did it. He knows the excitement. They have everything, but they still crave the sudden and almost unimpeachable intimacy that comes from taking something small – something they could afford but don’t have of their own.

But the game finished quite suddenly one morning before work. It was 8.54am, and the thief rode the dragging escalators out of the concrete underhalls, racking his brains about why his sportsmanship had been so weak so far that week. Dread gathered in his stomach. It felt as if the day was almost already ruined.

He was coming up to the ticket gates when he saw a bigger, older chap in an old unfashionable black leather coat slowing down. The man was looking through his wallet for the card he tapped in with. The thief hesitated, but reasoned with himself: time to go, quick getaway, looks like the kind of chap who’d take it on the chin.

As the man approached the ticket barrier, the thief came up behind him. He feinted left and right, so the people behind him thought he was hurrying impatiently around the old gentleman. But at the last minute, he gathered his courage.

The gentleman touched his card onto the reader; the thief embraced him from behind. He pressed his torso against the man’s back, his face pressed sideways against the leather, arms out at stiff angles down either side of the subject’s body, insides of elbows pressed against his sides.

But the card failed. The gates beeped and flashed a red sign. As the man banged against them, assuming they’d open, the touch thief misstepped and shoved the subject against the gates. So the man shouted.

What the fuck are you doing? he cried, pushing the touch thief backwards, card still in his right hand. You fucking idiot! Look what you made me do.

The touch thief knew he had to come out swinging too, so the man wouldn’t guess he’d been trying to touch him.

The gates are fucking shut, mate, he wanted to say, but his voice closed up.

Meanwhile, the man was still pushing him backwards. Tube staff were hurrying over. In the last moment of the game he felt a surge of something, the meeting of defeat and victory.

The man raised his voice.

Stepping on me when I’m trying to get through the gates, the fucking gates, my fucking card’s not working—

Please sir, the staff said, could you come over to this gate, sir—

But the man continued to cuss the thief:

Coming up behind me, you were practically up my arse, look at you in your suit and tie. You probably think you’re very fucking important, don’t you. I’m going to the hospital, I’m going to the hospital to see my mum—

—please, sir, the staff went on, if you just come to this gate—

The touch thief and the staff members’ eyes flicked between one another and the ranting man.

Come on then, come on if you really want to run into me on your way, come and run into me now, why don’t you run into me now—

Another staff member was coming to subdue the man. The thief realised he’d broken into a sweat. The supervisor put both his hands up in front of his chest and took a deep breath.

Look sir I’m going to need you to calm down—

The words sizzled through the ticket hall.

I am calm, the ranting man replied, I’m so fucking calm right now! This prick, this prick here – and he flicked his fingers under the touch thief’s chin.

That’s enough, the supervisor said firmly, his hands resting lightly on the man’s chest, his voice slightly raised.

The touch thief didn’t stick around to find out what happened next. As the ranting man’s anger finally exploded, he bolted for the gates, Oyster still in hand, across the polished floor of the station and into the light. A cool breeze touched the sweat on the back of his neck as he rode the escalator to the concourse. He stepped through the revolving doors of the building and into the dark, into the lift, into his office. 9.02am, the clock on the desk read.

Everything alright? his deskmate asked.

Fine, he said, walking to the window, looking for a police car outside the station. He ran his finger over the edges of the radiator, for a feeling.




The Rules of the Game

She pictures his feet thumping across the plush Persian carpet, and the swathes of peach silk that drape the windows of his hotel room. (No. Not room. Suite of rooms. She can see a four-poster bed through the open door behind him.) She watches him pace, turn, and march back clasping his hand to his head, clutching his hair. He’s ignoring the television for now, but it’s switched on, blurting out the same adverts that jangle along in the Sixth Form Common Room: Shake n’ Vac putting freshness back; a man stripping in a launderette to wash his jeans; a finger of fudge being just enough to give your kids a treat. She knows why he’s ignoring the adverts. She knows that he, Oliver Stone, is plagued by a crisis. He’s racking his brains trying to think who – who on earth – could play that role in his next film. And as the daydream plays out in her head, Em realises Abigail could do it. She really could.

The Sixth Form Common Room stinks of fruity Body Shop products, teenage sweat and the salty smell of prescription spot cream. Upper sixth-formers oust the Lower Sixth from the best seats. Standing room only. Em leans against the wall. She should have gone home. Abigail’s watching it at home. Her mum wanted them to watch it together. (Apparently.)

Everyone knows what happened at the audition. (Obviously.) For weeks, younger girls have been running up to Em screaming “willow” in her face. Now, she must watch Abigail Fawcett appear on telly in her place and she knows what will happen next. Abigail will get spotted – by Oliver Stone or George Lucas, someone like that – and be catapulted into a career of fame and fortune.

The music begins. Drums skitter. Girls scream, “It’s starting! It’s starting!” Space letters fill the television screen, shimmer and change, whirl and explode.

“Everyone shut up!”

“It’s starting!”

*

Strange that Em even heard about the audition, given how little she listens in Assembly. So strange in fact that, when she thought about it afterwards, it seemed that it was meant to be.

At first, that Assembly had been no different to any other. The sun had filled the school hall, highlighting the shine on Sister Assumpta’s pale stretched skin and warming up the gym mats, so that the place smelled of old rubber and old sweat. Assembly was always tedious (obviously), so it was impossible not to lose herself in fantasies about the life she was destined to lead. A life where she’d be interviewed on chat shows like Wogan.

Sister Assumpta’s voice had faded out as Terry Wogan’s warm Irish lilt faded in: So Em tell us how you were spotted? She imagined herself smiling a perfect smile. Was it George Lucas who saw you walking down the street?

Was it George Lucas? She couldn’t decide. It had been George Lucas yesterday, and the day before, but that morning Em decided she didn’t want a Princess Leia type of role. She thought she might be grittier than that. David Lynch?

She’d read in magazines about girls breezing round London and being spotted by talent scouts. New actresses were often discovered peering through shop windows in New York. It happened all the time (apparently). And it might happen to her too if, say, a film director popped into Woollies one Saturday and saw her flicking through the records. Trouble was, not many Hollywood types passed through the small market town where she lived.

It was this disappointment in her daydream that made Em tune back into the world around her: the school hall; the whisper of a rumour being passed; the rattle of a suppressed giggle as Sister Assumpta paused to check her notes. “The television programme, Blockbusters, is looking for contestants. I thought some of you girls might like to apply.”

Fidgeting, whispers and coughs ricocheted round the hall, but all Em heard was Terry Wogan asking her, Was it David Lynch who spotted you on the quiz show, Blockbusters? And turning to face the audience, he asked Wouldn’t you all like to see that first television appearance? Wouldn’t you now? as imaginary Em blushed and laughed at the young innocent girl she once had been.

*

When the day came, she didn’t want to look like she’d made an effort for the audition. (Obviously.) So she tried on everything: ra-ra skirts, bangles, stripy onion-seller tops, big necklaces with fat plastic beads, scarves. Her hair took an age to spike up. All that soap lather. And gel. And back-combing. And gel. And more soap and back-combing. And finally, hairspray. Then she had to change again until she got the look right. A bit Dexys Midnight Runners, she thought, checking her reflection, adjusting the strap on her dungarees and twisting her foot to get a better look at her leopard-print baseball boots. Not bad! She added hoop earrings, a trilby and grabbed her trench coat on the way out the door.

Outside the station, Em leant against the wall. Her fag looked ace burning between her black nail-varnished fingers and when she caught her reflection in a shop window, her first thought was record sleeve. Her second was perhaps magazine cover, but it would have to be a really cool magazine. She pouted a little, tried a surly attitude. The new it girl: classic good looks twinned with effortless casual chic. Casual chic? Did she just invent that herself? If she invented it, she must define it. (Obviously.)

A car pulled up and Abigail jumped out, a shrill voice wishing her good luck as she shut the passenger door. She strutted towards Em, dressed in a blue wool trouser suit with shoulder pads.

Em dropped her fag. “Is that what you’re wearing?” she asked.

Abigail stopped still and gazed down at her sleeves and shoes. She looked up at Em gaping and said, “Do you know? It appears I am!” before striding into the station to study the departures board.

Em wasn’t fazed by the sarcasm and followed Abigail into the station. “Shoulder pads?”

“Indicate I mean business,” said Abigail, crinkling up her nose and squinting through her glasses. “Now, which P do we need to board our train?”

“What?”

Abigail smiled and, when Em didn’t smile back, examined the ticket in her hand. “Doesn’t do any harm to practise, does it?”

*

From up high the train must have looked tiny – a mere sliver of a thing snaking through hills and under trees, passing down the scarred torn-up country. It hurried through industrial wastelands, under the low white sky. It passed boarded-up factories and houses, phalanxes of riot police, hordes of angry miners and twisting turning dole queues. Its black corrugated roof was wet with the battering rain. The lozenge-shaped carriages mindlessly trailed behind the diesel engine. Em leant back in her seat and pictured her mum, ironing with the radio on in the background: Desert Island Discs, Michael Parkinson saying So it all started for you when you appeared on the television quiz show, Blockbusters. Isn’t that right Em?

“Wake up!” Abigail was leaning across the table and shaking her arm. “The game’s afoot!”

“What?”

“They won’t take either of us if we’re no good.”

“It’s a quiz show, you idiot!”

Abigail shrugged theatrically. “And your point is?”

“You just said it was a foot.”

Why Abigail laughed, Em had no idea, nor did she care to find out, even though Abigail was still chuckling as she pulled a dictionary from her bag and started flicking through it. “Here’s one,” she said, “What T was invented by Logie Baird in 1924?”

“I don’t know. Who cares?” Em rummaged in her bag for her cigarettes. “Let’s just take it turns to answer. We can go on as a team.”

Abigail snorted. “I think they’d see through that. Then we’d both end up with F for disappointing lack of success.”

It seemed better not to say anything, not to encourage Abigail, so Em stayed quiet and lit up. But Abigail wouldn’t let it go. “Come on, Em, please. I need this.” Smoke tumbled towards Abigail’s navy blue shoulder pads and tidy hair. Her nose screwed up as she wafted it away. “I’ve got an au pairing job this summer. I need the fare to France. My mum’s broke.”

“Au pairing?”

“Yes, looking after children while improving my French. This is the only way I can get the fare to France. There aren’t any paper rounds are there? Not for girls. Saturday jobs? Not round here. Babysitting? I don’t know anyone with a baby who can afford to go out. What else is there?”

Em shrugged and smoked her fag.

*

Em wishes she was smoking now, but that’s not allowed in the Sixth Form Common Room. Instead girls dunk biscuits and slurp tea while presenter, Bob Holness chats to the contestants. Two cocky boys, who’ve been winning for ages loll behind their huge teddy bear mascot. The boy on the left, in the pink stripy shirt, explains he’s hoping to work in the City one day.

“Look at his teeth!” Someone yucks from the front.

“Yeah and his acne. He’s gross.”

His sidekick claims to be sporty, has his Duke of Edinburgh Gold already, and runs, rows, plays cricket and rugby at both school and county level. He wears a Lacoste t-shirt.

“Thinks he’s God’s Gift.”

“I wouldn’t turn him down.”

“You wouldn’t turn anyone down.”

“Shut up!”

“You shut up!”

The challenger looks about ten, hasn’t been in the game long and so far has only won twenty pounds. “Well you’ve got a chance to up that score today, haven’t you?” says Bob Holness as the boy shrinks back into his seat.

The game begins. Bob Holness lobbing questions thick and fast: What L…? What R…? What U…?

The cocky boys answer and grin, answer and grin. The challenger doesn’t get a look in. Abigail Fawcett is about to come onto their television screens when one of the Upper Sixth shouts, “What B describes a female dog and a smug swotty know-all?”

This is hilarious. (Apparently.)

*

Em hadn’t realised the TV lady was a TV lady until Abigail Fawcett stood up and shook her hand. So while Abigail walked along beside her, ponytail swinging as she answered questions about school and exams and stuff, Em trailed behind like a saddo.

She was always wrong-footed like that, especially by the likes of Abigail who was now listing her A-level subjects and outlining her plans for the future. “Hoping to go to Oxford!” she said, holding up crossed fingers on both hands.

The TV lady grinned. “Really? Which college? I was at…!”

So, the two of them were getting on great then. Em seethed as she followed them down one beige corridor after another. It was one of those plastic hotels. Hunting scenes from yesteryear hung on the faux wood panelling. The carpet was patterned with thousands and millions of fleurs-de-lis extending through endless corridors, only interrupted by the occasional set of double fire-doors. When they’d first arrived, Em had been sure it was the wrong place. “Why would a TV company hold auditions in a grotty chain hotel on the outskirts of town?” she’d asked in a come-off-it-and-admit-you’re-wrong tone of voice.

But Abigail had used the same tone to reply. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s convenient for the station so candidates can find it easily. Refreshments are available twenty-four hours a day. No doubt they were able to block book rooms for their staff. Need I go on?”

Em watched Abigail’s ponytail swinging like a pendulum as she sauntered over the fleurs-de-lis. And as for the TV lady! She’d been a great disappointment. Em had been expecting someone with charisma, someone glamorous, not some dumpy short-haired woman in beige trousers with a clipboard. When they finally arrived at the right room, they were pointed towards a couple of chairs and each given a big black buzzer. The TV lady perched on the edge of the bed and shuffled a deck of outsize cards with BLOCKBUSTERS printed on the back.

“Right!” she said grinning, her face spreading wide. “I take it you both know the rules of the game!” Abigail laughed as if this was an in-joke, so Em thought she’d better laugh as well, but it came out too loudly, sounded too fake. She was sitting there, regretting the laugh and wondering why it had gone wrong, when the TV lady started reading questions off the cards.

What Q…?

Em knew this one, looked down at the buzzer and watched her finger hover, ready to press the button, but Abigail’s buzzer sounded first.

What Z…?

She knew that one too, but Abigail’s buzzer went off before she had a chance.

What L…?

The questions kept coming. Abigail kept buzzing, getting all the answers right. Em knew the answers. They weren’t difficult questions. But Abigail was quicker on the buzzer. Buzz quicker, that was it. If Em could buzz quicker, she’d get to answer a question, be in with a chance of pulling herself up into the game. She waited for the next question, staring the TV lady straight in the eye, her finger resting on the button, ready to press.

And buzz.

Yes! She did it! She buzzed first. She did it. She did.

But Em had been concentrating so hard on buzzing first, she’d forgotten to listen to the question. Now the TV lady was waiting for the answer. And that’s when everything became more vivid. The beige of the TV lady’s trousers and the magnolia walls glowed with a new warmth. The flowers on the bedspread seemed to come alive. And the TV lady’s eyes were the brightest blue.

For Em, time slowed, had gone soupy. She considered escaping, imagined slamming the door behind her, pictured herself running back down the endless corridors, surrounded by clouds of floating fleurs-de-lis to flee the plastic hotel. Problem was she couldn’t move. So her mind rummaged through the memories and miscellaneous information she’d acquired in her sixteen years and that’s when it came to her: something about always having a go. Answer the question, even if you don’t know the answer. Just take a guess. A dim echo of the question replayed in her head. Was it something to do with trees?

*

As they left the hotel, Abigail put her hand on Em’s arm and grimaced. “That was rough!” she said. “Are you all right?”

Em shook her head. “Desperate for a fag to be honest!”

There was time before their train so they ambled round the strange town, found an off-licence and a local park, and sat on the grass: Em with a bottle of Diamond White cider, chain-smoking a pack of Embassy Regals; Abigail with the sandwiches her mum had given her and a packet of crisps.

Em relived her ordeal. “What T is a metal for making cans with? What T! Why did I think ‘tree’?”

“Because it rhymes with T,” Abigail told her, munching on a Quaver.

“A metal for making cans with! And I said ‘willow’.” Em sighed as she laid back on the grass. “I really wanted to be on telly. Now I never will be.” The branch of a tree spread out above her head, its leaves flickering in the breeze, breaking up the cloudy sky. Perhaps it was a willow tree, she thought, then chuckled and said, “At least it’s a funny story.”

“What? You’re not going to tell people, are you?” Abigail scrunched up her empty crisp bag, as well as her nose. “Not people at school?”

“Why not?”

“Don’t, Em! You’ll regret it.”

“It might get a few laughs!”

“Only at your expense! School is a cesspit of bitches who’ll use it to persecute you whenever they can. That’s how it goes. Rules of the game!”

This seemed a bit far-fetched. For a start, Em was nowhere near as unpopular as Abigail Fawcett. In fact, she wasn’t even unpopular. Perhaps misunderstood? A little aloof? Definitely too cool for the others. (Obviously). But it would have been mean to point this out. So Em just knocked back some cider and told Abigail not to exaggerate.

*

Watching Abigail appear on telly now, she thinks back to that afternoon in the park: how Abigail had coughed when she’d tried to smoke, and how drunk she’d got on not very much cider at all. Then those blokes had come along, ugly bastards, and sat down on the grass beside them. One had put his hand on Em’s leg. It was Abi who’d got rid of them, jumped up and leapt forward with a karate chop. Later, on the train home, she’d admitted she’d never done karate. It was all completely fake. “Gave him a bit of a fright though, didn’t I?” she’d laughed.

Em had turned maudlin. “You’re a really good actress, aren’t you Abi? Really good! Good at everything. You’ll probably get onto Blockbusters and be spotted by David Lynch.”

“David Lynch?” said Abi. “God I hate his films! So misogynistic!”

Em didn’t know what that meant nor did she care to ask. She was lost in her cidery fug of sad thoughts: there was no escape; she’d never be on telly; and she’d be stuck forever in the small market town. She was reaching for the last of her Embassy Regals as Abi said, “Hang on a sec! Do you seriously think Hollywood film directors watch Blockbusters?”

What could she say? It probably did seem silly to someone like Abi, whose blurred scrunchy face was frowning at her now, who seemed to be wearing two pairs of glasses? It might seem silly to her, but then she didn’t read magazines did she? As far as Em knew, Abigail Fawcett only ever read books. And half of them were in French!

But Em must have nodded or something, because Abi shrieked so shrilly and so loudly other passengers glared disapproval. She collapsed as if the force of the laughter was taking all her strength. And she was still laughing minutes later as she dragged her head off the sticky plastic train-table and sighed, “God I wish we had more of that cider!”

*

Screamy whoops and cheers, American style, from the audience in the Sixth Form Common Room. And shouting. “There she is! There she is!” As if it needed announcing. “Oh my God she’s in uniform!” The cackling drowns out Bob Holness’ introduction. “Sad!” “Why’s she wearing that?” “Abigail Faw-swot!”

Nobody, not even Michael Winner, would cast her now.

Bob Holness welcomes new challenger Abigail, who turns the colour of that boy’s pink shirt.

“Bet she fancies him!”

“Who? Bob Holness?”

“No, God’s Gift!”

“She’s not even wearing make-up!”

“Why doesn’t she get contacts anyway? Especially for the telly!”

“’Cos the glasses help hide her ugly face.”

Bob Holness asks Abigail the name of her school. When she answers the two boys smirk and the audience titters. (People always snigger when you tell them you go to the Convent of the Holy Virgin.) Bob Holness tries to deflect attention onto Abigail’s unusual mascot – a model of the Eiffel Tower. This seems to put Abigail at ease and she confesses to being “a great Francophile”. Bob Holness encourages her to talk about this, which she does. “Novels mostly,” she says, “Balzac, Flaubert, de Maupassant. All the usual suspects!” She grins thinking she’s on safe ground, as perhaps she is until she adds, “I just love doing French!”

God’s Gift opens his eyes wide and grins stupidly. A hoot of laughter in the audience seems to puzzle Abigail. The boys smirk behind their teddy bear. Bob Holness is keen to get on with the game. “Well, let’s not waste valuable time. What A is to kidnap?”

Even as Abigail buzzes fast and says “Abduct”, Em sighs and thanks God she failed the audition. It’s not as if no one’s bitched about Abigail before today, but “I just love doing French”? She’s never going to live that down.

Bob Holness has moved on, is impressed with her speed. “Very quick off the mark Abigail!” he says, “Well done! And which letter would you like now?”

“S please Bob.”

“What S has a cathedral with the highest…?”

“Salisbury.”

There’s no stopping Abigail. She knows that the N served in Chinese restaurants are noodles, the R signifying a distance to be focused is a range, and the B at the bottom of a river is a bed. Not so cocky now, are you, boys from whatever school? Sixth-formers perch on their seats, comment with each right answer: “Bloody know-all!” “She’ll never get laid.” “Swot!” And yet the naffest game show of all time has got them hooked. Abigail is racking up the cash. She’s doing well – really well – and Em is silently rooting for her.

Trouble is Abigail can’t get across the screen. The boys keep blocking her. They’ve upped their game using her trick, buzzing before the end of each question. The blue hexagons are flashing in a broken line. One question to go. If the boys get this, it’s all over for Abigail.

“Very exciting round!” says Bob Holness. “You know what this means? Let’s see who can get to the buzzer first!”

He picks up the card, pauses to milk the tension. The camera zooms in on the contestants. Abigail is pale, holds her breath as Bob Holness asks, “What I is water hanging from a roof solidified by…?”

A buzz. Abigail’s light flashes. She’s going win!

But then she says, “Iceflow.”

*

The younger girls don’t bother Em anymore. They’re too busy running up to Abigail and shouting “iceflow” in her face.

Worse still, the idiots from the boys’ school nearby keep asking Abigail if she likes doing French. When she ignores them they call her “Icy, the icy iceflow”. It happens a lot at the bus stop after school. It makes the convent girls laugh, which, Em reckons, is why the boys do it. No one ever sticks up for Abigail. Why would they? She’s always needed taking down a peg or two. (Apparently).

It’s ages before Em gets the chance to ask her what happened. The locker room is damp and foetid after hockey. Abigail is wiping the steam off her glasses. She shrugs. “You know what it’s like.”

“Yeah, but you could have won.”

“Doesn’t matter, Em. It’s only a game. I got what I wanted out of it. I won enough to cover the coach to Dover and a one-way ferry ticket.” Abigail shuts the door of her gym locker, fiddles with the padlock then turns to Em and smiles. “It was fun getting drunk with you by the way. I enjoyed our afternoon in the park.”

“Yeah!” says Em. “It was a laugh. You and your fake karate!”

She briefly wonders if they might hang out again sometime, pictures the pair of them flicking through the records in Woollies one Saturday. But Abigail turns to go. “Well, if you’ll excuse me,” she says with a grin, “I’m off to do some French!”

Em watches Abigail hurry down the corridor to class, ponytail swinging behind her.




Litro #170: Editor’s Letter

This issue’s theme, “The Back of the Bus”, though fairly open to interpretation – the back of the bus might be where the cool kids sit on the way to school – inevitably calls to mind the American civil rights movement’s struggle against the injustices of racial segregation and one woman’s action to insist on a basic human right. It was only sixty-three years ago, on 1 December 1955, that Rosa Parks made history in Montgomery, Alabama by refusing to give up her seat for a white man and go sit in the segregated area of a bus. This act of defiance would change the course of American history and earn her the title “mother of the civil rights movement”.

Rosa Parks’ refusal led to her arrest, which triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system, organised by a then little-known Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would later go on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil-rights work. The Montgomery bus boycott marked the start of the modern civil rights movement in the United States. The movement would result in the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations.

But within this month’s pages of Litro we have a bit of a mix: stories and essays more directly engaged with race and politics rub shoulders with stuff a bit more oddball. On the one hand, Kate LaDew’s “Jo Ann Robinson” is a creative nonfiction about the life and work of another great civil-rights activist; Paola Trimarco’s essay “The Broadway 36” remembers 1970s bus rides through what King had called “the most segregated city in America”; Rebecca Ruth Gould’s essay “Jim Crow in Jerusalem” explores parallels between racial segregation in modern-day occupied Palestine and Israel and in Jim Crow America; and LaMarr Thomas’s short story “A Harsh Spring Light” is about the pain and humiliation a black high-school senior is made to feel during history lessons about America’s greatest sin. All these explicitly political pieces sit in comfortable contrast alongside stranger stories like Jonathan Covert’s “We Pick Karen”, an unusual take on office politics, envy and competition, or Elizabeth de la Forêt’s “Don’t Google Me”, in which a fifty-one-year-old woman comes unexpectedly into her heyday. Chris Di Placito’s “Animal Kingdom” follows a guy just released from prison on his bus journey back into freedom – or is it freedom? – and Han Smith’s elliptical “Reproduction Furniture” explores the aftermath of a horrible but everyday encounter on a bus. In a story set in Nigeria, “The Fulani Damsel”, by Jeff Unaegbu, the narrator impulsively jumps off the bus and into another culture, to be entranced by it; and, returning to the theme we started at, in an exclusive extract from Michael Nath’s forthcoming novel The Treatment, about a fictionalised version of the Stephen Lawrence murder, a woman police officer goes undercover in a gang of racists.

And for another culture and perspective, our cover and photo series this month is “Life in Kashmir from a bus stop”, by Lauren Stewart.




Don’t Google Me

My memory is of Rolly under me, marveling “we just want to please each other,” while I peered down at my pressed white breasts rocking against his damp chest. The furnished apartment on West 26th Street, which he’d rented when his wife kicked him out, was a luxurious little place by most standards, with wide wooden floorboards, a transparent kitchen table set, and an unused garden. But he hated it. He loathed being alone and under the intrusive gaze of his neurotic landlady, whose allergy to perfume required us to use a glycerin soap I found drying.

“Take your time, Elizabeth,” he’d whisper, holding my hips in his hands, “I plan to be fucking you for hours.” I gripped the headboard and looked at the tidy paintings behind it. To relax and concentrate, I would banish other images from my mind and focus only on him. Rolly had a heart-shaped face, heavy glasses, short-cropped graying black hair, and the most intelligent hands I have ever seen – “safecracker fingers,” he’d giggled. He stood five feet four inches tall, and when strewn atop him thus as if large myself, my mind’s eye might picture someone female there beneath me, like my tennis partner, Kitty McNulty, a cheerful tow-headed woman with large breasts and an aggressive net game. I wasn’t inclined to kiss women, not since I was nine and played Hooker and John with my best friend Gale, an unpopular bedwetter with dark red pigtails high on either side of her head.

“Whom do you belong to, Elizabeth?” Rolly would demand, jutting his pelvis up with a jerk, his eyebrows stern. I’d smell his densely shaven cheeks and get a thrill. “You, Rolly, I belong to you.”

It astonished me that at the age of fifty-one, when my friends’ husbands were suddenly leaving them, possibly for gay lovers, and certainly for mentally unstable women in their twenties who might wear a dirndl in an online photo, I was having my heyday. It does not escape me, I cannot overlook the sad cliché that this bright thing came by way of Rolly’s harmful antipathy for his wife, and that my giddy excitement would turn into despair.

At the time however, I delighted in his close attention, how he studied of all my movements, noticing any slight changes in my voice that indicated a shift in mood, or the unladylike way I would jab the end of a sandwich into my mouth with one finger; it was as if what I said or did were important. And unlike my husband, a dolt of a man – for there was this unfortunate fact also–Rolly was famous. Not famous to you, perhaps – not a celebrity like Marlon Brando, say, or Martin Scorsese, or Leander Paes, or whomever. But to my mind, he might as well have been. “It’s not whether he’s actually great that we’re talking about,” said Toryn, who’d been to Arizona for co-dependency rehab, “but rather the fact that you think he’s great that counts.”

“You like it when I possess you,” Rolly whispered. I could hear the landlady shuffling around upstairs. “I know you so well,” he said, tugging the duvet out from where it had bulked up and hindered me. When his glasses were off, I could examine his face lovingly. His nose was a puzzle. Seen in profile, it looked straight and refined, yet from the front, the effect was utterly different, clownish, bad. I kissed him. “You delight me,” he said. “So obedient, how you like to please me.” Here my undulations finally began. Deep sounds came out of my mouth. There was a faint smell of cabbage I found exciting, like a dark hallway in my childhood. “That’s what I need to hear,” Rolly cried, his cheeks ruddy, his elbows perching him up. “I plan to hear you for decades, Elizabeth.” The sex made him high, he would say anything. “And now I will flip you over and put a baby in your belly.”

Just before the big thing started, my physical appearance had made a dramatic turn for the better. For years it seemed I had tried to emulate my outdoorsy stepmother, Pam, a Roosevelt from the provinces who, though plain, had stolen my father from our family when I was eight. My clothing choices still followed her “style” – shapeless, putty-colored fleece tops, pale, too-short “Connecticut” pants, flat, mouse-colored hair, and glasses – a look that was sometimes reflected back at me with a measure of derision, as if people were annoyed by how I narrowed and minimized myself. Indeed, my resemblance to my stepmother was embedded in the way I behaved, never rocking the boat, continually volunteering as if this were important, and denying my artistic underpinnings, my desire to destroy things loudly or build them by tinkering here and there.

Now I had become newly trim and muscular, following a two-year immersion in my local tennis circuit (another of my stepmother’s avocations, along with ceramics,) and I had cut my hair and highlighted it, and somehow the whole thing came together.

“What baby, Rolly? I am past reproducing.” I puffed, worn out. There was a plastic cube of new sheets unopened on the floor, to replace ones I had already bloodied, as my body was undergoing a sloughing and a predicament I hadn’t yet taken in. “Is my fantasy too close to the bone?” he asked. “You’re the main event, Elizabeth. A baby would just be somewhere else to put my love for you.” Afterwards, we ate bonbons and potato chips in bed. An array of colorful dry cleaning overflowed from the closet and hung about the room. “Don’t google me,” Rolly said suddenly. “I will become vain inside the relationship.”

To say that I was in awe of Rolly’s fame does not diminish the claim this love makes. I was not the type to want something for nothing. I had never dated anyone particularly eloquent or special, not in recent memory. And yet, it was as if to be lifted from obscurity and unhappiness, sitting by his side, while the keynote speaker inevitably wound around to making Rolly the focal point of a whole speech ostensibly about something else. Through the scrum of fans, he’d wiggle his fingers behind his back to demand my hand, and my heart would bang open. I loved Rolly so much that, later when it ended, I had to ask god’s help to clear my thinking of morbid curiosity and longing. For a difficult period, the ache lodged itself in my sternum like a chestnut, until eventually I managed to feel something else.

I hadn’t spoken to my father for a couple of years. That was just how it was, nothing un-benign, nothing bizarre about it. When I’d borne my son, Anup, who was by this point a gloomy teenager, my father had not wanted us to come see him. “Not necessary,” he said, so we didn’t. My husband’s family moved in anyway, making for more than enough relations. To claim my space, I might breastfeed without much coverage. Who could know their strange formalities?

“This is your life, Elizabeth,” Rolly said, passing me a bag of handmade Tibetan flowers and organic room spray from a junket. I wore a mink coat belonging to my friend’s mother, who had recently died. My life was also elsewhere, bound to haphazard dinners with my husband, whom I was afraid of, though he periodically produced Best Buy gifts in a cycle my D.V. social worker called “the honeymoon phase”.

In the ’70s, I had gone to watch Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors play at the US Open with Dad and Pam. Our seats were in the sun and it was very hot. My father had soft hair and wore brown lace shoes with fascinating perforated patches on the toe and heel. I was feeling lazy and my stepmother had scolded me for having rummaged through her purse looking for gum or candy. Dad asked me something technical about the match and I felt my eyes hood over. I lived in the city with my mother and sister, we didn’t play sports, so I didn’t know.

“That’s all you got?” taunted Mo, the pro, when I hit the ball with all my might. I jerked awake in my sleep, swinging at balls. I liked to play against the men and hear their self-excoriating shouts ring through the dome like trees crashing down in a hurricane. I had an excess of angry energy I couldn’t really use. Sometimes, if I became too adamant, my body would start emitting a tinny smell, and I’d be losing. “So, you want to be the big hero?” Mo would ask. “Take a battery out of it. When you be all out there you lose focus. Stay within yourself.”

It was easy for Rolly to remember ordinary details I told him, how, when Anup put his fingers in a glass of water and pressed them to his forehead I could tell he had a headache, or how my daughter Usha asked, “Do you think everyone has at least one mole?” He remembered who became animated gossiping about graft at the Forest Hills Tennis Center; that it was Heidi whose Alsatian put its beaky snout in every passing crotch; that my uncle Birdie had been too inebriated to wake when his bed caught fire from a discarded cigarette; that Usha had shouted “Shazam, I’m doing it!” when a bedraggled Captain McNulty ran behind with a broomstick through the back of her bike and let go; that Anup was evidently “burning through his candy money” at camp; that I had married my husband because I thought he would look up to me and I could use him.

“How will we keep Usha from becoming vulgar?” Rolly asked, as if we were parenting together, or he had seen firsthand the vanity creeping in at her age, how she had begun to flip her long hair and pick out short shorts. “Should we plan on keeping alcohol out of the house, considering Anup’s predisposition to addiction?” These protective words filled me with hope.

“If you give someone your number,” Toryn said later, matter-of-factly, “they will keep dialing it.”

One day, just before we were due to take a trip to Kyoto together, Rolly handed me my clothes in a paper bag on a street corner and announced he had decided to reconcile with his wife. There was garbage blowing past our feet. He wouldn’t see me again. He would have to block my number. I sat down on a stoop and watched him walk away, a pant leg stuck in his sock from behind. I tried to show his love letters to Toryn, as proof of what had been between us. “It’s his circus,” she said emotionlessly, pushing them aside, “are you buying a ticket?”

*

I met Jude on Tinder in another city. He was tall, subdued, shaven headed, elegant enough. There were many times a day when I needed him. Sometimes I would call and ratchet things up. “I wish I could stroke your head right now. You must be missing me, I can tell by the way you answered.” Jude lived in a stone house in Bellport, with square bushes like tidy topiary and a Jacobite rose out in back. He liked to cluck at a crow on the stone wall, and have it caw back in response.

“Are you nervous, getting to know me? Because I am still nervous,” I’d confess. Jude seemed reawakened by this sort of conversation. Yet, he sensed that something might be awry, that I might flip flop at any moment. “Am I your rebound guy?” he asked, because he was “cautious” and “a scientist”. It was easy to love this traditional man. I would remember the details he told me, how he hated to waste food, how he’d made profilometers for the Taiwanese government; how he was happy it would be monohulls in the America’s Cup in 2021. “I feel possessive of you suddenly. Soon I’ll be pouncing on top of your big brown hairy chest, and you’ll be jabbing me with your penis.” I praised him like a molested person, crafty and harmed.

Sometimes, if I were feeling fragile, our phone call might go clumsily, and Jude might say something off-putting. “Are you dirty? Do you need me to clean you up?” Such frankness reminded of the time in the limo when Rolly reasoned aloud that I was “underpriced” (or was it “undervalued”?). Thinking of it made me morose.

“It’s rather urgent you tell me about the spandex, Jude,” I whispered. He sailed in neoprene pants on cold days. By then, he’d relaxed. “I understand the urgency,” he replied, “because I know what intrigues you, and I love you.”

*

I became preoccupied with seeing Rolly again, perhaps by chance, on the subway or in a shop. There were many scenarios. I would tell him, “My nice bald boyfriend is six feet tall. He bangs me vigorously because he’s a scientist.” Then again, it was also possible I’d have desultorily thrown a fanny pack across my waist or be eating something on the fly. I wanted to force deep repentance from him. I pictured my funeral, Rolly despondent and wretched. These maudlin imaginings put me in a frame of mind to Skype Jude. “We are like two lizards,” I’d say, peering vainly into the camera, “staring at each other on a hot rock.” As if it were a hoax, the images had been spoken before. (I was still clinging, I could not let go.) “Drinking each other in,” Jude added, from his sofa, in his round eyeglasses, and because he still had his kind innocence, though mine had disappeared.

Just when trying to recreate the relationship I had had was starting to make me feel bad, Jude wanted me and my children to come live with him in Bellport. Inescapably and without explanation, I withdrew from our romantic project altogether. The conversation was more disagreeable than I had expected. Surely, I could have molded myself. Although Anup hated sailing, he never would have gone. There was time I might have sought a life in the provinces. Now I just needed to break things loudly or build them by tinkering here and there.




The Treatment

An exclusive extract from Michael Naths forthcoming novel, The Treatment.

At The Black Gun, Kim’s boyfriend made a fuss of Claire, which was just to be welcoming, and had Kim pretending to be jealous. The boyfriend was called Marcus. He bossed the bar well: punters he liked, he rewarded with his manner; when he did smile, he was your friend, and meant it. He had chocolatey eyes. On a wooden wall behind the bar were a couple of posters of young men barred from drinking in The Black Gun. Claire didn’t recognize them, but when Marcus clocked her checking, he said they were just Charlton thugs, not consequential. Which got her thinking. And all the time, he was watching like he was waiting for someone in particular. So it wasn’t a surprise that at The Black Gun later that Sunday evening, Claire encountered one of the gang. By then, she’d had a few Pernods, and Kim’d got Marcus to make her a Red Witch. Getting tipsy was part of the cover. And when a young man in mirror shades appeared beside her at the bar (she hadn’t noticed him come in), it all seemed worked out. The DI’d taken her to meet Kim, who’d introduced her to Marcus. They were both agents, and they’d made preliminary connections with L Troop – since Marcus was now greeting Pete de Lacey and introducing Claire. And it was her job to come on to him.

So she came on to him, kept touching his arm, and laughing when he said things. In The Black Gun he was the top boy, and he probably knew it; though he didn’t seem to care all that much; it was like he was after something else, behind those mirror shades. For the time being anyway, he went along with who he was: he took his money out to buy drinks for hangers on and toadies who were hoping to treat him; he banged his bottle down and turned suddenly and now and then he clenched his fist slowly, or made a throat-cutting sign and either he laughed, or shook his head when he did that. With racist remarks, he was sparing, limiting himself to throwaway comments on coons and pakis; laughing once when someone said something in his ear about the taxi-driver who got drowned in Victoria Dock, that that was the best you could expect from West Ham fans, who weren’t even clever enough not to get banged up for it, seeing as they left enough evidence to fill a 16-yard skip, boasted what they’d done, then got turned in by their fucking step-mums. It was old hat anyway, done and dusted, boring, mate. Then someone said, ‘Not like you, Pete’, and he turned to him and said, ‘What did I tell you, Tony?’, and pointed his bottle of Bud and made the throat-cutting sign with the bottle neck, so Tony flushed and crept away down the bar – for all the good it’d do him, if Pete was annoyed. And at last orders, he turned suddenly to Claire: What we doing then?

She said they could go back to hers, she had beer in the fridge and a bottle of Smirnoff. That wasn’t no good. He only drank Absolut. So she said she could get some Absolut, and he said where? Wasn’t nowhere round here sold Absolut this time of night on a Sunday, and he stared at her like she might have blown it, but then he said, Come on, let’s go down Robbie’s – you come too (meaning Claire, along with the hanger-on who’d mildly disgraced himself with the talk of the Victoria-Dock murder, but now seemed in favour again – assuming he had a choice whether or not he came to Robbie’s). So they got in a blue-black Cosworth that Pete de Lacey  told Claire he kept for tearing up when he was half-caned, and they went south through roads and woody lanes at high speed with the hanger-on whooping and Claire frightened for her life.

Robbie’s was a big house, set back from the road down a dark drive with an electric gate that Pete de Lacey shouted something at, before they passed stone lions and eagles, Claire trying not to giggle in the back; but now they’d screeched to a halt where the drive curved onto gravel and the front door was open in a blaze of light, and in the door, a young man with a bird’s face and fair hair was bouncing. As Pete de Lacey approached him, he shouted and bounced and leaped at him and began to nuzzle at his face and make pecking gestures that might have been playful; so Pete, he wrestled him and put him in a headlock and pretended to duff him up. Then the young man bit Pete through the sleeve of his shirt, so Pete threw him with his left leg and went down with him and they scuffled and play hit each other in the bright hall, while the hanger-on and Claire stood over them and the hanger-on shouted, ‘Do him, Pete!’

After a while, Pete, now sitting astride the young man, said, ‘You got guests, Robbie, you cunt!’

‘I can’t see no one,’ said Robbie, and as Pete bent back to point at them, Robbie wriggled violently to the side and bit Pete’s calf, whereupon they both rose, red, laughing, tucking in their shirts. Then they went through a big kitchen, and gathered by a black Smeg fridge that looked like a safe, and Pete de Lacey asked where Robbie’s mum was, to which Robbie replied that he didn’t have a fucking clue and scratched his fair hair, and began to stare at Claire as if he only now was noticing her. So Pete said she was a friend of his, and Robbie said, ‘Yeah? You fucked her yet then?’ And Pete laughed and said open the fridge and show his fucking wares.

Behind the black door, bottles glistened and ready meals were stacked. Pete told Robbie he was a greedy cunt with all that stashed in there, but Robbie scratched his head again as if he didn’t care for his own flesh, and said his fucking mum left him that stuff when she went off, handing out bottles of Bud and Stella. Then he remembered where she was, and his face was all nose for a moment, like that’s where he did his concentrating. She’d gone up the West End to see a show with her mates. Wouldn’t see her again till next week. Pete de Lacey asked Robbie if he didn’t have any vodka in there, and Robbie said come in the pool-room, got some there. So they followed him in the pool-room, which was a flash den, and when they saw how Claire shot pool, they thought she was all right, and Pete wanted to play doubles with her against the hanger-on and Robbie, as they chased the Stellas with big vodkas. And when she woke up, Pete de Lacey was beside her.

*

For a long time after, he was beside her. She was his bitch – that’s what it came down to.  She was his, he wasn’t hers. Understood. He was a player, had to be, with his rep. He enjoyed collecting people; it was a power thing. Or semi-enjoyed it, like it was a substitute for something bigger he wanted. Sex itself, he didn’t much enjoy; it took too long. He wouldn’t let go; he was thinking of what he’d do next, hurrying there. He didn’t like her letting go (whether or not she was putting it on). No need for that. He didn’t do it, shutting his eyes and howling; why should she? But what did he have against it? It was when you let yourself go that you was vulnerable, weak, that was what. And anyway, it was just a plunge, that’s all, nothing more than a plunge. Why make a big show of it? Claire told him you might because you loved someone, that’s why. He shook his head and laughed. As she watched him, she reckoned she’d found a weak spot – but it would only have been the weak spot she needed if she were genuinely interested, as opposed to working on him; in that respect, he was giving away nothing. And this put her under a pressure of a kind untouched on in her briefing – which went like this. Since he was notoriously associated with a particular crime, any girlfriend was likely to mention it, sooner rather than later. You couldn’t not know what Pete de Lacey was supposed to have got away with, could you? Not if you were an English girl who purported to be from around these parts. Therefore, you’d be curious. You’d want to hear him deny it outright, wouldn’t you? Unless you were a starfucker that got kicks from race crimes. And when he denied it, either you’d dig him the more for getting on with his life after the false accusations and bad publicity had made it impossible to find a job, and so forth; either that, or you’d push it under the carpet: you’d asked what had to be asked, and you’d heard denied what had to be denied; now you could help him ‘move on’. But that Claire hadn’t once mentioned it – well that must seem odd, and as it got odder with time, it would begin to seem suspicious, like she was playing some game, and knew already. And this was one of the ways in which she began to lose control: she was meant to be investigating, or entrapping, him, but it felt it was turning the other way round. She needed to act fast.

To encourage him to give himself away, she began dropping certain remarks herself (hoping he’d take her as a starfucker). But when she came out with stuff about immigrants taking our jobs, he said a lot of them weren’t immigrants – they were born here. She asked him, What’s the difference? He didn’t answer; then he said they could have our jobs for all he cared; he just wasn’t bothered; the jobs were basically shit anyway. He wouldn’t be drawn on this. It was like he was a thought ahead of her. So that bookshop she’d passed with Kim and Frankie, she went down there and bought some papers and pamphlets, Blood & Honour, British Nationalist, Redwatch, Totenkopf. She came out with positions and slogans she’d picked up. He watched her and shook his head. Sounded like she’d been reading that stuff just to impress him; wasn’t her. ‘You don’t really mean it,’ he said. ‘That ain’t you, babe, ain’t you one bit!’ Did he want her to mean it? It wasn’t possible he could want a racially-tolerant girlfriend, was it? No. But he didn’t want her putting him on; and he was too quick at sussing when she was. One time, she started about the Lübeck hostel fire, how the suspects got police alibis, even though they’d scorched their own faces. He asked her what was funny about that. He asked her again. Nothing really.

A thing that interested him was how she felt about the others (these being his other girls). Wasn’t she up for cutting their throats? They were for hers!  She was well alarmed, but he was like, ‘Don’t worry, babe. I ain’t letting them at you!’ They wanted to cut each other’s throats too. When Claire heard that, she calmed down; though there was still the problem of her lack of jealousy. Could he see under that as well? She wasn’t jealous because she was just doing her job? Fucking frightening! She told him she was above all that throat-cutting stuff. It had no class, being like that. This seemed to impress him. He stood with his hands in his pockets watching her, then he looked down at the floor. He was thinking. To consolidate, Claire said, ‘If you love someone, you’ve got to be ready to let them go. My mum taught me that.’ He seemed to nod his head, and asked her where she fancied going. She said take me somewhere cool.

The night was a disaster. They went to the Rack Club in Greenwich, and Pete was being quite sweet to her, trying to make her laugh; then his brother Mick appeared with Robbie, and Pete suddenly turned. An Asian guy was dancing with a blonde girl, pulling some wild moves on the floor; so these three started hooting. At first, it was like they were admiring the Asian, but then their sounds became mocking; a few couples left the floor and went to lurk by the bar, looking on, but the Asian and the blonde kept dancing. The track was a metal cover of ‘You Spin Me Round’. A bouncer appeared, but when he saw who it was kicking off, he shook his head and grinned, like Boys will be boys!, and went away again. Then Pete put his fingers in her drink and pulled out two ice cubes and threw them; and when she put her hand over the glass to stop him taking another, he stared at her and Mick said, ‘Fuck me! You ain’t letting her pussy-whip you, are you, Pete?’ So Pete snatched her glass and threw the G&T over the couple, while Robbie and Mick grinned like they were coming, and that horrible beak of Robbie’s – ah, he was an animal, that one! Well the DJ stopped the music and the lights came on, and the blonde partner of the Asian, she comes running over to where they’re all sitting though the Asian guy’s trying to hold her back, and she starts screaming at them, and the more she screams, the more Pete and Robbie and Mick laugh, and mock her voice. Then she turns on Claire, and says she should be ashamed, to be sitting with three toerags like this, and the three lads watch to see how Claire responds, and what she comes out with, it has them cheering. This is what she said: ‘Ashamed? Well at least I ain’t a fucking race traitor!’

She didn’t mean it – couldn’t have. But out it came. And it protected her cover. Yet she had no one there to tell she didn’t mean it. And without anyone to tell what’s behind them, your acts might be just what they seem. What was worse, the gang rated her for it. With them, she was almost a made woman. Pete put his arm round her: ‘Didn’t think you had it in you, babe. That’s why we was testing you like. Proud of you.’ By that time, the blonde and the Asian guy were leaving, but at the exit, the blonde turned and stared at Claire, then shook her head; and it chilled Claire, what she seemed to mean by it.




Jim Crow in Jerusalem

(Figure 1) Robert Frank, “Trolley – New Orleans,” The Americans (1959)
(Figure 1) Robert Frank, “Trolley – New Orleans,” The Americans (1959)

 

“New Haven itself is a crime scene, the site of historic and continuing racism, segregation, and social inequality.”[1] So wrote a scholar of the city at the turn of the twenty-first century. This observation links America’s segregated past to its nominally desegregated present: anyone who travels from the New Haven train station to Yale University confronts the fractious legacy of racial segregation. While segregation in the United States predates 1896, the racial divide approved by the “separate but equal” ruling of the US Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) strengthened Jim Crow laws across the American South, and indirectly reinforced de facto segregation in the northern states. The racial divide was famously emblematized in a groundbreaking documentary photograph series currently held in New Haven, Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959). Four years after Rosa Parks had famously refused to cede her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger, Frank captured the starkly physical engineering of public space that segregation had set in place on a New Orleans trolley (figure 1). The camera angle is evenly split between black and white, and iron bars divide each passenger from their neighbours. The riders stare at the cameraman, their countenances etched by public and private histories of grief. Ranging from defiance to desperation to denial, every face canvassed in the photographer’s gaze expresses a fraught relationship to a racially tainted American dream, adding dimensions to the axiom of geographer George Lipsitz: “race is produced by space [and] it takes places for racism to take place.”[2]

When I encountered Frank’s “Trolley – New Orleans” in the Yale University Art Museum in the middle of 2012, I was immediately brought back to September 2011. On this month, I began what was intended to be a five-year fellowship at the Jerusalem-based Van Leer Institute for Advanced Studies. I welcomed the opportunity because it gave me the chance to live across the Jerusalem border in Bethlehem. (I ended up leaving after ten months, having observed many aspects of daily life in Palestine as well as Israel that had fallen beneath the radar of the news headlines.) Commuting between Jerusalem and Bethlehem introduced me to a range of discriminatory regimes, which were both different to and similar from the Jim Crow system of the American South that I knew from US history and, more distantly for me, South African apartheid.

Although South Africa provided the immediate context, the United Nations’ fullest discussion of apartheid is deliberately designed not to target any specific state. According to UN’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973), apartheid is “a crime against humanity” organized around “policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination … for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons.”[3] Scholars and other observers are increasingly applying this definition to Israel.[4] In his study of how the apartheid analogy pertains to Israel/Palestine, South African scholar Daryl Glaser argues that “Israel proper more closely resembles Northern Ireland during the Protestant ascendancy, with Jews in the role of the Protestant majority and Arabs in the position of the Catholic minority, than it does apartheid South Africa.”[5] Glaser is right to discern a difference, yet the two systems depend on each other. For an American, segregation in Israel proper (as demarcated by the 1967 Green Line) evokes the de facto Jim Crow of the northern states. Meanwhile, segregationist policies in the occupied territories approach more closely to apartheid South Africa in certain respects and to de jure Jim Crow in the American South in others. This essay focuses on how these various types of segregation unravel and reconstitute themselves across the entirety of Israel/Palestine, in a regime where borders are increasingly fluid and internationally recognized borders are increasingly irrelevant to the facts on the ground. The phrase “travelling apartheid” expresses this fluidity and reflects a dimension of everyday life that often goes unremarked on both sides of the Green Line.

Israeli Jim Crow discriminates with great subtlety, and through heavy reliance on the latest technology, both within Israel proper and in the Occupied Territories.[6] Often the subtlety is so great and the bargain so lucrative that those discriminated against accept the terms of their subordination while keeping their energies in reserve for the battles they can afford to fight. Whereas apartheid prevails in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the forms of population management that prevail in Israel itself approach more closely to de facto forms of Jim Crow. Both forms of social organization are pernicious and both stand in need of critique.

The traveler who journeys by bus from Palestine to Israel becomes immediately immersed in contemporary apartheid, and comes to see, if only partially, how “to travel in Palestine is to be caught in a slow-moving vortex of filtering by the permit system and of funneling through the ubiquitous checkpoints, and to move among spaces with varying forms of sovereignty.”[7] There are two bus systems. The Israeli system is run by the Israeli company Egged with support, until 2015, from the French multinational corporation Veolia.[8] Ironically given its role in facilitating segregation, Egged literally means “union.” By contrast, Palestinian buses are run as private initiatives by individual bus drivers, and are not united under a single company. They are recognizable by the blue letters emblazoned on a white surface, which read in Arabic: JERUSALEM – SOUTH. The schedules for these buses are not posted for the simple reason that no schedules exist. Buses leave when they are full. The task of moving around the West Bank and from the West Bank into Israel is thereby simplified: there is no point in keeping track of time when time is so unpredictable. Simultaneously, time in the Occupied Territories is complicated: one is always bound to wait, sometimes for hours on end. The result? “The theft of time,” in the words of Israeli journalist Amira Hass.[9]

By contrast with the decentralized Palestinian bus network, Egged is organized according to a rigid timetable that is standardized across Israel and publicly available online. Every bus in the Egged fleet is painted bright green, with silver panelling and bulletproof windows. To ride a bus in Tel Aviv is to ride a bus in Jaffa is to ride a bus in Jerusalem. The rider knows what to expect, and the buses run with clockwork-like precision. Whereas Palestinian bus drivers diligently distribute the same generic paper ticket to everyone, Egged receipts are electronically generated for each new passenger. Egged’s stops are announced on digitized screens hoisted above the driver, and accompanied by a recorded Hebrew voice that prepares passengers for each stop. (Although Arabic is an official language of Israel, it is nowhere to be seen on the Egged buses.) To get off at a specific stop on a Palestinian bus, by contrast, the rider must inform the driver in advance, and one’s voice must compete with the Arabic news broadcast blaring on the radio.

Also in contrast to the Egged bus system, which abounds in clearly marked bus stops all over Israel, often with benches and glass coverings, there are no bus stops that are marked as such for the Palestinian bus system. Palestinian buses generally stop near Egged bus stops, but this is not a fixed rule. In order to know where to wait for a Palestinian bus, one must either be Palestinian or be in contact with someone who regularly travels this route. For the Palestinian bus network, even though it runs precisely parallel in many places to the Egged system, there is no infrastructure to support bus stops, schedules, or even individually generated tickets.

Another difference between the two bus systems that elucidates the two-tiered dimensions of life under Israeli rule is the demographics of its riders. The deliberate segregation of Jewish Israelis on Israeli buses and Arabs on Arab buses cannot be accounted for through socio-economic or other pragmatic explanations. For much of their routes through Jerusalem, the two buses follow parallel tracks. For someone steeped in US history, this two-track bus system looks like yet another iteration of a “separate but equal” ideology. Although, unlike in the American South, the segregation regime is devised in such a way as to generate an appearance of conformity with international law, not once during the ten months I spent crossing the Israel/Palestine border did I encounter a West Bank Palestinian on an Israeli bus or an Israeli on a bus from the West Bank, even when the Palestinian bus route was restricted to Jerusalem. Even when travelling through Jerusalem, West Bank Palestinians avoid Israeli buses as much as possible, and rely instead on Palestinian buses.

Notwithstanding the avoidance of Israeli buses by their West Bank counterparts, Israeli Palestinians comprise a sizable minority of the cohort of Egged bus drivers. Even more than physical appearance, the distance between Palestinian and Israeli Jewish was evident in their response to my questions. Whereas Israeli drivers feigned ignorance when I asked how to get to “Bethlehem,” Palestinian drivers were happy to guide me towards that West Bank city from Jerusalem. Ask one of the Israeli Egged drivers how to get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and he will look at you as if you were asking to go to Tokyo. The most common reaction among such drivers was to pretend that they had never heard of the West Bank.

No law requires Israelis to avoid Palestinian buses or Palestinians to avoid Israeli buses. In contrast to the segregated trolleys of the American South, Palestinians are not legally required to sit at the back of the bus. The segregation that confronts any causal visitor to Jerusalem is partly elective. As one Palestinian-American declares by way of emphasizing the complex political choices entailed in her daily commute, “I ride the bus that is strictly for Palestinians who do not have Israeli citizenship.”[10] Although in theory this Palestinian woman could board an Egged bus, she avoids them out of solidarity with her fellow Palestinians. In the absence of a legal prohibition, but amid overwhelming unofficial discrimination, the norms of traveling apartheid further entrench the racialized binaries of everyday existence in Israel/Palestine.

Outside Jerusalem, past the many checkpoints bisecting the West Bank, the situation has recently come under stricter regulation. West Bank Palestinians who are only permitted to enter Israel for the purpose of work are now required to restrict their movements to the “Palestinian only” bus lines that were introduced in March 2013 by the Israeli company Afikim in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Transportation. The Ministry of Transportation introduced this new legal requirement in response to settler demands for a bus system that could be used exclusively by them. Whereas the white and blue buses that circumambulate east Jerusalem are Palestinian-run, the two new bus lines that transport Palestinian workers from the checkpoints into Israeli cities are run by Israelis. As such, they correspond in this respect more closely to the classic apartheid model, whereby segregation is instituted and enforced by the ruling regime.

There are differences between the Israeli version of Jim Crow and its counterparts elsewhere in the world. The buses run by Afikim for transporting workers back to their homes in the West Bank are cheaper to ride than were their Palestinian predecessors. The introduction of this legally mandated form of segregation by the Ministry of Transportation therefore entails a decrease in the commuting cost for Palestinian workers, which is not a minor consideration given the West Bank’s (artificially) stalled economy and the scarcity of jobs. Even though the lines are often long for the Afikim buses (as shown in figure 2), still such waiting has advantages over the former system, which required Palestinian workers to face taunts and racial slurs from the settlers with whom they were compelled to share space on their journey home.

The segregated bus system is enshrined within the high-tech infrastructure that generally characterizes the occupation. Its conciliatory rhetoric positions the Israeli state as a defender and protector of Palestinians’ interests. As the leading liberal Israeli daily Haaretz states of the light rail, another controversial addition to Israel’s transportation infrastructure originally run by the French multinational company Veolia, which until 2015 was also involved in Jerusalem’s segregated bus system, “Jerusalem’s light rail has become the most salient symbol of the city’s unification under the wings of normalization and technology.”[11] As with the light rail, which makes Israeli settlements permanent by linking them to Jerusalem, the checkpoints, and the wall, so with the new bus system: the occupation is normalized through technical means. While some Israelis regard the light rail as a symbol of Jerusalem’s unification, others point to its institutionalization of new forms of discrimination. Hanna Baumann makes a compelling case for the light rail as an agent in segregation. She argues that this new mode of Jim Crow transportation was the reason why the light rail stations were destroyed by rioting Palestinians in early July 2014, following the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israeli settlers.[12] East Jerusalem Palestinians, argues Baumann, “are not in fact quietly acquiescing to the ‘unification’ of the city, which they understand as the annexation of occupied land.”

Even following the introduction of the new bus lines, Israeli laws have not changed to reflect the reality of the new segregation. Transportation Minister Israel Katz insists that Palestinians are free to travel on any bus line as long as they have a permit. “Palestinians entering Israel will be able to ride on all public transportation lines,” he asserts.[13] While the reality on the ground gives the lie to his statement, it is true that Palestinians are not legally barred from boarding buses not intended for their use. However, de facto segregation is protected and there is no reliable legal mechanism to challenge it.[14] Instead of imprisoning Palestinians who violate the segregation regime, segregation is instituted through subtler means: Palestinians are incentivized to avoid buses designated for settlers. Inevitably, Palestinians are compelled to prioritize the welfare of themselves and their family over abstract appeals to resistance. When asked for his reaction to the new bus system, one Palestinian worker clarified his reasons for preferring de facto segregation. Noting that settlers regularly spat in his face when he travelled alongside them on his way home from work, he stated that he preferred the new system. The settlers “can say what they want,” this worker explained, “as long as I’m safe on the bus. I just want to put bread on the table for my children.”[15]

Although the law is vague when it comes to the Palestinian right to ride Israeli buses, some Palestinians have exposed the discriminatory dimensions of this new system by refusing to abide by the new regulations. These activists’ non-violent actions, inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, resulted in mass arrests.[16] This example demonstrates that, even though Palestinians are not legally required to ride the buses designated for them, those who refuse to do so will be arrested and prosecuted on other legal grounds. Retribution for civil disobedience regarding Jim Crow regulations sends a clear warning signal to would-be Palestinian activists, who might otherwise be inclined to agitate for equality and social justice.

 

(Figure 2) Palestinian workers line up in front of an Israeli-run Palestinian only bus line, after crossing the Eyal checkpoint (Qalqiliya). Source: http://972mag.com/photos-israels-new-palestinian-only-segregated-bus-lines/67068/
(Figure 2) Palestinian workers line up in front of an Israeli-run Palestinian only bus line, after crossing the Eyal checkpoint (Qalqiliya). Source: http://972mag.com/photos-israels-new-palestinian-only-segregated-bus-lines/67068/.

 

Given the brutalization of Gaza, where bombs are rained down on hospitals, houses bulldozed, and there is no electricity supply during most of the day, and nonviolent protesters are shot simply for expressing their views, a Jim Crow bus system hardly appears like the most lethal aspect of everyday life. Even if the harm caused by such traveling apartheid appears moderate in the short term, the two-tiered bus system illustrates how the occupation affects all Israelis and Palestinians, including those who reside in Jerusalem or in parts of Israel not formally under occupation. Both de facto and legally mandated segregation damage any prospects of future peace. If Israelis and Palestinians travelled in the same buses every day as they navigated the Occupied Territories, then the geography of occupation would interfere more forcefully and effectively with the apartheid imagination.

Given a non-segregated bus system, the separation wall, which the Israeli state insists is the only surefire way of bringing Palestinian violence to an end, would lose its alibi. The advantages of abolishing traveling apartheid are practical as well as ethical. Even terrorists who believe that the cause of Palestinian liberation is advanced by killing Israeli civilians would be hard pressed to justify Palestinian casualties. If Palestinians and Israelis travelled on the same buses on a daily basis, then the everyday reality of co-existence would prevail over the ideology of apartheid. Would-be profiteers from antagonisms generated by this conflict would find it increasingly difficult to define their other as their enemy. Such peace poses a greater threat to the current Israeli regime, which thrives on fear, than do the most blatant acts of terrorism.

Solidarity against travelling apartheid would also constitute a united front against ethnocratic thinking on all sides. If Israeli and Palestinian passengers rode the same buses together, rather than being siphoned into buses according to their ethnicities, if the buses that now run parallel to each other on the very same roads were merged into a single transportation network, then the battle lines of the occupation would have to be redrawn. Recent events, such as the violent transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, have exposed the pretense of the so-called two-state solution. The Jim Crow bus system is a physical manifestation of the segregated reality that a two-state solution would consolidate if erected along actually-existing borders. Under present conditions, a two-state solution would entail an endorsement of apartheid. Now that the pretense of the two-state ideal has been exposed, the Jim Crow bus system makes even more visible the need for a single state wherein Israelis and Palestinians live together with equal rights, under the same rule of law.

For nearly a century, from 1876 to 1965, Jim Crow was the status quo, legally mandated in the southern United States and tacitly followed in parts of the northern states. Israel, founded in 1948, is still younger than the entire length of the Jim Crow era. The full panoply of discriminatory regulations that segregate Palestinians from Israelis today are of even more recent vintage. While the Israeli apartheid system is still evolving, the unfolding of this process before our very eyes, at this very minute, as we write, speak, and fail to act, intensifies the urgency of protesting against it.

While acknowledging the relevance of the apartheid analogy, Palestinian philosopher Raef Zreik argues that “the defining feature of the Palestinian case, in contrast to that of the South African blacks, is fragmentation; the Palestinian experience has so many different facets that it is impossible to subsume them all under a single term like Apartheid.”[17] Zreik acutely diagnoses the limitations of rights discourse for theorizing about, and acting within, Israel/Palestine, in the absence of a single framework agreed on by both sides. Such a framework is the key element missing from the situation of Israel/Palestine, and what was present in the case of South African apartheid. In the US context too, as Zreik notes, “one might have conceived of blacks … as having been excluded, because there was a totality (the American people) of which they were presumably a part, but from which they were in fact excluded.”[18] Such a totality has yet to be generated in the case of Israel/Palestine. There is no actually existing universalist framework to which the apartheid geography of Israel/Palestine can be opposed, and no precedent for a joint Israeli/Palestinian state to which both advocates and opponents can refer. And yet such a framework is necessary, if only as a conceptual possibility, to index the distance between Israel’s state-building project and international legal and ethical norms. What does not yet exist, must be invented, no matter matter how much imagination and courage is needed. We need a vision of what our coexistence should look like, no matter how impossible it seems.

While every historical comparison risks obscuring key differences, Palestinian and Israeli civil rights advocates can learn from the strategies South Africans and African-Americans have developed for resisting travelling apartheid, for pinning it down and dismantling it.[19] Will these lessons in anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance from other times and places enable the political configuration signified by the impossible copula “Israel/Palestine” to overcome its segregated present? That will be determined in part by those who ride the bus, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and elsewhere throughout Occupied Palestine, every day.

*

[1] Elizabeth Chin, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 183.

[2] George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 5.

[3] “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Adopted by the

General Assembly of the United Nations on 30 November 1973,” Available at: https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/unts/volume%201015/volume-1015-i-14861-english.pdf.

[4] See Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) and Apartheid Israel: the politics of an analogy, edited by Jon Soske and Sean Jacobs (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), and Robert Wintemute, “Israel-Palestine Through the Lens of Racial Discrimination Law: Is the South African Apartheid Analogy Accurate, and What if the European Convention Applied?” King’s Law Journal 28.1 (2017): 89-129.

[5] Daryl Glaser, “Zionism and Apartheid: a moral comparison,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 26.3 (2003): 413.

[6] Helga Tawil-Souri has written extensively about the technological aspects of the occupation in works such as “Digital Occupation: Gaza’s High-Tech Enclosure,” Journal of Palestine Studies 41.2 (2012): 27-43 and “The Hi-Tech Occupation of Palestine,” in State Power 2.0: Authoritarian Entrenchment and Political Engagement Worldwide, eds. Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 57-68.

[7] Julie Peteet, Space and Mobility in Palestine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 69-70.

[8] According to the company’s press release, “Veolia closes the sale of its activities in Israel,” (available at https://www.veolia.com/en/veolia-group/media/press-releases/veolia-closes-sale-its-activities-israel) it ceased doing business in Israel in 2015. Veolia’s links to the Israeli transport system are discussed in Cherine Hussein, The Re-Emergence of the Single State Solution in Palestine/Israel: Countering an Illusion (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 162-163.

[9] Amira Hass, “Israel’s Closure Policy: An Ineffective Strategy of Containment,” Journal of Palestine Studies 31.3 (2002): 5-20.

[10] Tasneem Turk, “Letter from Tasneem,” in Kenneth Ring, ed. Letters from Palestine: Palestinians Speak Out about Their Lives, Their Country, and the Power of Nonviolence (Tucson: Wheatmark, 2010), 75.

[11] Nir Hasson, “Unraveling the murder that’s shaking Jerusalem: The facts so far,” Haaretz (July 4, 2014). Emphasis added.

[12] Hanna Baumann, “The heavy presence of Jerusalem Light Rail: why Palestinian protesters attacked the tracks,” OpenDemocracy (July 6, 2014).

[13] Itamar Fleishman, “Separate but Equal Bus Lines?” Yedioth Ahronoth (March 4, 2013).

[14] See Robert Mackey, “Israelis Divided Over Separate Bus Lines for Arabs and Jews in Occupied West Bank,” New York Times (March 4, 2013).

[15] Joel Greenberg, “Israeli buses for Palestinians spark accusations of segregation,” Washington Post (March 5, 2013).

[16] For this movement, see Maryam S. Griffin, “Freedom Rides in Palestine: racial segregation and grassroots politics on the bus,” Race & Class 56.4 (2015): 73–84, and Mark Levine, “Freedom riders on the move in Palestine,” Al-Jazeera (April 9, 2014).

[17] Raef Zreik, “Palestine, Apartheid, and the Rights Discourse,” Journal of Palestine Studies 36:1 (2004): 71.

[18] Zreik, “Palestine, Apartheid, and the Rights Discourse,” 70.

[19] Some of these strategies are catalogued in Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 




We Pick Karen

We pick one from among us. Her name is Karen. Karen can’t believe it. Or at least she acts like she can’t.

“Me?” Karen’s eyes, unremarkable only moments ago, become lost in the middle-distance, shimmering with light from a fixture mounted in the office’s drop ceiling.

Yes, Karen, you. You have that special something. That je ne sais quoi.

Moi?” Karen says.

Oui, Karen.

*

Well, actually, nous savons quoi – we’ve made a list:

  1. Karen smiles a lot.
  2. Karen smells good.
  3. Karen consistently demonstrates above-average capability in almost every enterprise.

(With the exception of Monday Movie Trivia Night, which leans heavily on John Hughes, for which Karen is too young anyway.)

  1. Karen reads a lot of non-fiction.
  2. Karen supplies healthy snacks (typically, a vegetable platter w/ hummus) at office functions, e.g. birthdays, co-ed baby showers, the Holiday Party, etc.
  3. Karen knows her way around the gym.

(Which is to say, Karen’s butt won’t quit.)

  1. Karen is objectively attractive.

(Propriety dictates we ignore this fact until about halfway down the list.)

  1. She has that dark eyebrows / light hair thing, genetically-disheveled, like a stray puppy.
  2. When she smiles, her upper lip warps into this tantalizing rim under her nose.
  3. Karen is too humble to use the word “matriculate”.

(But we’ve definitely heard of both her alma maters.)

  1. [lagniappe] Karen affords us the benefit of the doubt.

(Like, for example, this one time someone[1] ate Karen’s lunch out of the fridge, and Karen sighed and wondered aloud if someone did it by mistake, which was awfully kind of her, and totally ridiculous – Karen always labels her containers.)

Etc., etc.

We don’t tell Karen about the list. Instead, we say je ne sais quoi.

*

If it had to be one of us, it was always Karen. Like a colorful beach ball at a music festival, Karen has an inexplicable momentum: no one knows where she came from, but here she is, making her way over outstretched arms, initiating among strangers some spontaneous contract to keep her aloft – a matter of etiquette, of mob, of trance, of course to nudge her along.

But let’s not get carried away. We’re not sending Karen to the Senate or anything. She gets an office and a desk and a computer and a raise. (It’s not customary to acknowledge the raise, except with flashes of our eyebrows, little nods, little bemused smirks, like, Hey, did you hear? Not too shabby… Actually, we don’t know the exact figure.)

She’s given forward-facing responsibilities – business-to-business communication, contract overtures, that sort of thing. The bosses kind of show her off. Who can blame them? If you have a Ferrari, park it in the driveway.

However, the suggestion that we recommended Karen solely on her curb appeal offends our sense of decency – Karen just happens to be very, very pretty. Furthermore, let it be stated that we have never propositioned her, sexually. No. Not overtly. Not at the Holiday Party.

Not that we can recall.

We lament that, heretofore, the incidence of her sexuality will be inextricable from the trajectory of her career. We comment to each other on how hard she worked to get where she is, loudly, as if paying deference to a superstition, or a capricious ghost. We’re relieved that she gets the hang of the new position pretty quick. But of course we knew she would.

*

In her office, Karen espouses an open-door policy. “Door’s always open,” she says, and she actually leaves it open. She even takes calls like this, even on speakerphone – totally inconsiderate of content or sensitivity, that easy, incandescent laugh flitting out like a lightning bug loose from its jar.

That laugh attracts some attention. One day, as Karen is on the phone, a passerby from upstairs slows outside her door. A pause becomes a linger. After a moment, the passerby (now officially a bystander) seems to have heard what he was listening for. He leans back against the wall and waits, stroking the coarse black hair around his gold wristwatch, a reflex that makes him look like a housefly.

When Karen hangs up the call, the man from upstairs gives a little rap on the door frame and peeks inside the office. He says he couldn’t help but overhear: Karen has a lovely voice.

Moi?” – Karen playing coy again.

The man extols to Karen the quality of her own voice, as though describing a fine brandy: confident balance; authoritative, though softened by fleecy fry; spicy finish; a steady brook carving through a verdant glen. It’s a bit much. We’re thinking of coming to her rescue, maybe calling into her office, providing some excuse with which she can eject, some emergency – Hey, Karen, sorry to bother, but someone threw a lit cigarette into the bathroom trashcan and we need you to run out and get an extinguisher, or a mop bucket, or something – but, finally, the man cuts to the chase. He asks Karen for a favor, presented like an exciting opportunity: how would she like to record the automated directory options? Could be great for her personal brand. Maybe record the incoming voice mailbox message and outgoing courtesy reminders, too? Awesome exposure. Ya know, if she’s interested…

“Yes, and!” Karen says.

They both laugh. Of course, she’s happy to help. Karen and the man schedule a time to meet with IT and “lay down some tracks” – his words – then off he goes, back upstairs, or wherever, with this big dumb grin on his face, molesting his own furry little paws.

Perhaps he doesn’t know that she’s way out of his league.

Still. We have to admit, a little curd of jealousy rises up in our usually milky-smooth disposition when we call in and hear Karen’s voice tick off the automated directory options.

“For English, press one.”

Karen on demand—

Para Español, oprima dos.

—a little bit of Karen for every fingertip on the touch-tone.

*

Karen’s performance exceeds expectations. She is creative and savvy and well-dressed. It isn’t long before her name achieves unanimous cynosure among her supervisors. The word “wunderkind” peppers their inter-office memorandums (info made privy to us by Fat Jenny, who traffics in top-floor gossip). The marketing department finally puts a face to the name and, in no time, some bespoke PR troupe swishes through our floor and greets Karen outside her office. She shows them in, upper-lip curling like a thirsty petal, and closes the door behind her.

There’s talk over the next few days, and then we see it: Karen’s face splashed across the “30 Under 30” feature running in the city’s pop-culture weekly. (In this picture, she looks older than thirty: some clueless stylist has done her hair and make-up like any generic news anchor, totally sabotaging Karen’s hipness, her God-given vim.) The company coordinates an industry event to run concurrently with the feature, with Karen slated for the keynote presentation. They rent out a flexible function space on the ground floor of the Ritz Carlton and set up a massive projector screen behind a stage dressed with geometric, post-contemporary nonsense. The seating is just folding chairs. Attendance isn’t mandatory, merely suggested.

Karen wears all black. She never turns her back to us, or lets us see where her hands-free microphone is attached to her pants. “Cultural institutions are re-calibrating for the 21st century,” Karen says. Behind her, the massive projector screen plays a video of some futuristic-looking, industrial-scale hydroponic farm, replete with conveyor belts trucking microgreen pods – little cradles of tender arugula sprigs – through a bright and sterile void. “We’re re-evaluating how we perform our core activities, co-opting cross-disciplinary rigor to effectively hack traditional business practice in this integrative digital age.”

Wow! That sounds competent!

After about a half-hour of this, Karen bids everyone thank you and goodnight. The applause persists slightly beyond what feels natural. The lights come up and the audience adjourns to the lobby. We want to congratulate her on the presentation, but Karen is nowhere in sight.

“My question is,” Fat Jenny says, “what does lettuce have to do with anything?”

Karen’s laugh announces her entrance to the lobby. We’re milling around when we hear it, finally spotting her by the open stage door. Before we can approach, our path is blocked and she is swallowed by a group of upper-management-types – immaculate suits, gray temples, tooth enamel too perfect for their age, suspiciously clean. They shake hands and exchange business cards (even though they must all know each other). One of the VIPs places his fingertips on the small of Karen’s back – she seems not to notice – and maneuvers her easily, as if she’s on wheels, towards the entrance. Outside, a convoy of executive luxury sedans has been prioritized at the curb by a small army of valets. Karen falls neatly into the backseat of one of the cars, which then all roll away in a sleek line.

Guess we’ll catch her on Monday.

*

Karen won’t always be so pretty. There is this little thing called gravity. However, we simply can’t imagine Karen’s fat / wrinkly / old future. (Did we mention Karen’s Bikram yoga routine?)

But Karen is changing. She wears unfamiliar clothing – expensive-looking couture prospective, maybe, of next year’s trend. She wears a new pair of thick-rimmed glasses that occupy a lot of reality on her face. Below the glasses, her mouth has developed concerning folds at the corners, like a starched napkin. She looks older than thirty.

Sometimes she’s critical of us. Sometimes she’s impatient. Sometimes she admonishes us for our inability to rationalize holistically (a phrase she’s coined and slid into circulation). Sometimes she practices her managerial eye-contact on us like we’re a bunch of business-casual sparring dummies. Sometimes she speaks at length about creative visualization, during which we observe, through her telescopic prescription lenses, eyes like impact craters rayed with fine lines. Is she forgetting to drink enough water? Oh, Karen.

…All of which gives us pause, makes us second-guess, once in a while, this whole Karen thing. (Who were you before us, Karen? Who are you now, Karen? Who are you to stand there, Karen, all crater-faced, in judgment of us?)

We do most of our second-guessing over drinks after work.

“Vivian in HR, she told me how much,” Fat Jenny says. She holds up fingers on both hands. “That many. That’s how much. It’s unprecedented.”

The figure is a tad higher than we expected.

“And you don’t want to talk about it?”

Of course we don’t. We hide our salary from our own children. We shred our ATM receipts into confetti while they’re still in our pockets. We spirit our bank statements from the mail box like love letters from an affair. If our children ask about money, we offer them inscrutable explanations, either round the figure up to Enough, or down to It’s going to be a small Christmas this year. (We work in mysterious ways, as far as our children are concerned.)

“It’s not even about the money,” Fat Jenny says. “I just wish she’d get out of my face. She keeps telling me to leverage best-practice, and I don’t know what the fuck that is. And what’s with all the eye-contact? That’s some Jack Welch, power-tie bullshit. I mean, who the hell does she think she is?”

Who the hell indeed. Karen has a reserved parking spot because of us. We know right where it is, that kind of awkward, dim corner in the executive section of the garage. Very poorly lit.

(Just saying.)

Fat Jenny says, “You know, I turned down that job?”

(We doubt this very, very much.)

“Because I have integrity. I’m not gonna let that place change me.”

We feel the need to remind Fat Jenny that integrity is only a virtue for exceptional people who risk change for the worse. In her case, a little change might not be so bad. To put a point on it, we sink our finger about two inches into the roll of her love-handle, to which she says Jesus Christ – she’s this close to filing a complaint about our pattern of sexual harassment – to which we say, Pfft, you wish.

*

We wake up next to Fat Jenny thinking Karen probably owes us. After all, we’ve been in her corner from the beginning. She won her promotion on our recommendation, our professional courtesy. We picked Karen. We could have just as easily picked someone else. The smart thing would have been to pick ourselves! We start to feel as if we’ve loaned her a dollar bill for a scratch-off, and she just won the jackpot.

What, exactly, does she owe us? A little fucking gratitude, probably. We begin to wonder about the decorum in redeeming said professional courtesy. Maybe she could take us out to dinner or something – something low-stakes, comfortable, civil. How might we casually steer her onto the subject; how might we compel her, graciously, towards the proper conclusion?

(Hey Karen. Nice parking spot. Us? Oh, nothing. Car trouble, huh? Weird. Need a ride? No problem at all, your place is on the way. Of course we know where you live the co-ed baby shower, remember? Can you believe Jenny’s still carrying around all that weight? Car’s in steerage, just a few levels down. Whoa! Steady there. Feeling a little light-headed? Low blood-sugar? That someone eat your salad out of the fridge again? Say, we were gonna stop for a bite would you like to go to dinner? Yes, with us. Ha ha! Karen! You must be really dizzy…)

Then one thing leads to another and—

Fat Jenny calls shotgun on our way out the door.

Still here? We spot her a ten for a cab.

“Are you serious?” she says.

Okay, we say. Now it’s five for the bus.

*

Karen could do worse. We’re looking at ourselves in the golden reflection of the elevator doors and we’re thinking, hey, we have qualities too. Not the sort of latent qualities on which Karen has levitated probably her whole life, but, you know, we’re not so bad.

  1. We dress well.
  2. We know some French.

(Un peu.)

  1. We part our hair on the left, like Superman or Han Solo.

(v. hair parted on right, e.g. Clark Kent, or Hitler.)

She could do worse. The elevator dings and the doors pull our reflection apart.

In the office, something is amiss. A hollow presence looms around our desk all morning, a negative space we can only perceive in our sinus cavities. Is someone fucking with the thermostat? We lick our finger and test the air, but can’t gauge exactly what’s up. It takes until a little after lunch to finally put our finger on it: the door to Karen’s office is closed.

Karen’s office is Karenless.

We spot someone from HR come trundling down the aisle and yank her down by the sleeve of her blouse.

“She’s gone,” HR says.

What do you mean, “gone”? We don’t understand; there’s a brief and tumultuous interregnum in our trail of comprehension, like a pebble dropped on a procession of ants. Please clarify, we say.

“Poached,” HR says, crestfallen, as if delivering more bad news about the Black Rhino. “The grass is greener over at Deloitte, apparently.”

Goddamn Consulting. That figures: a nebulous title for someone as lofty.

We express our condolences to HR – It wasn’t your fault, HR; you can’t blame yourself each and every time a good one slips through your fingers – then say a few words in loving memory of the dearly departed:

She was a pleasure to work with, we say. A competent person.

Is a competent person,” HR says. “Being competent somewhere else. It’s not like she’s dead.”

But she is kind of dead. Moved on, dis-incorporated – she’s followed the light. Anyway, she’ll be hard to replace.

The elevator doors open and out spills a colorful gaggle of new hires. They come bouncing along the rows of desks, swinging backpacks off their shoulders and unfolding laptops. They chide one another for too-tight collars and sloppily-knotted ties, parrot rote sarcasm – “‘Fake it till you make it!’; ‘Greed is good!’” – all the conventional deflections for selling out, pledging to the frat of Capitalism. It’s a time-honored tradition, like being beat into a gang.

HR sighs. “Top picks. Who knows, maybe they’ll live up to it.” She looks down at her sleeve. “Uhm, you can let go now.”

Of course. C’est la vie. Thanks, HR.

“It’s Vivian.”

Right, we say. Let’s not get carried away.

A young man pulls out a chair for a pretty, young girl, some bright, promising so-and-so. She smiles and accepts the gesture, for which he beams at her with something like reverence. Greener pastures. Big break. Avancez toujours. Best of luck on your future endeavors. Au revoir, Karen.

 

[1] It was Fat Jenny.




The Fulani Damsel

Ordinarily, I would have continued on my way to Enugu and only wondered what some brown huts were doing up a hillock when they should be located somewhere in northern Nigeria. But after pointing out these huts to a very indifferent fellow commuter, I was immediately consumed by wanderlust. I simply pulled out from where I was crammed at the back of a heady minibus and yelled at the driver to stop. Everyone turned around and stared at me. They continued to stare at me as I quickly disembarked and headed for the hill, matter-of-factly wading through the green coteau leading upwards. They must have thought I was off the deep end for just taking off in that direction, alone and on impulse.

Well, halfway up, I saw her, I mean the most beautiful girl in the world. She was walking ahead of me, probably returning from selling her nono or milk. She had slightly bouncing legs half exposed by a sparingly-striped white wrapper. This wrapper covered curvy hips in a graceful manner. One of her queenly hands was holding onto a finely decorated calabash bowl with a straw cover of rich tapestry on her head. She clutched a circular band in that hand also. Her few grey balls of fura or curd were packed in a transparent plastic bag which was itself partly covered by smaller bowls atop the big bowl. And her black braids cascaded about a nymph face that should command the seas to water distant deserts. Yes, these braids were of curly supple sheen and spotted carefully with a parade of milk-white cowries. As she turned to glance in my direction, large brass earrings jingled and sparkled in the sun, as did gold bangles and (I think also) cowries and the mottled beads on her smooth waist. Soft almond eyes, daintily carved nose and thin sensual lips filled my consciousness. Just then a rich Fulani smile and naked shyness blew away the hot sweat on my Igbo brows. This smile welcomed dimples that complemented her fine dentition out of which a gold tooth dazzled the sun and my awed eyes. Then she slowed down to study me and I instantly noticed she was at peace with the world, unlike those civilized commuters reeking from paranoia as they headed for Enugu. And as she waited for me to come up to her, even as the wind played on the teal camisole shielding her bold breasts, I employed the little Hausa I had snatched from onion merchants at Onitsha.

“Inakwana?” I asked, making as if I understood the full import of my enquiry. Well, it was something near the approximations of a good morning, though it was afternoon!

“Lafialon, Sanu,” she replied or rather sang. And her voice carried me to Mount Everest and brought me safely back to Africa and to Nigeria, atop a hill near Enugu, all in three seconds. We stared at each other. Did they say the Fulani were quarreling with the Igbo in Jos?

She said coyly, “Zakasha fura de nono?” (Would you take milk?)

I nodded for the opportunity of taking this milk I had always been curious, from a genteel point of view. She threw down the circular band and brought down her well-carven bowl to balance upon it. Then she squatted expertly and her flawless knees and part of her soft thighs were proudly flaunted. Soon she brought out a ball of fura, dropped it into a smaller bowl and poured some of the milk into it. She began to knead the fura with a small aluminum ladle and the ball gradually melted into the milk, thickening it in the process.

“Mei sunan ka?” I asked, not knowing I had made another mistake in my desire to know her name.

“Zainab,” she laughed. The fullness of her laughter was enough for me to contemplate human psychology. “Ba sunan ka ba. Kache Sunan ki.”

She had corrected me, advising me gently to use “ka” when referring to males and “ki” to females. I wanted to say I was sorry but did not know how. So I raised both my hands in acceptance, praying she would understand the implied apology, even though I knew that she had excused my blunder for my naivety in the use of the Hausa language.

Soon, Zainab brought out a special “turn-stick”, which looked like a miniature model of the frame of a turnstile. She inserted the stick vertically into the solution and began to rub her palms with its upper stem between them. As the lower stem of the stick turned in the solution, I immediately understood that the action was to achieve a complete dispersal of the curd in the milk by turning. And as she turned the stick, I imagined her silky palms rubbing an Arabian elixir into my mind – an elixir that would help me in the forthcoming task of convincing my sorry kindred of the dignity of the Fulani.

She began to sing a song. Without warning, a gush of happiness flooded me. Voice ahoy! My spirit set sail in the oceanic tunes from her throat. I joined her in singing the song, or rather muttering along, even though I knew not what I was singing. I was only content with her singing it on and on and my tagging along in mumbles. It was only when she offered me the bowl of milk that I knew I had to ask in my smattering of Hausa what it was all about.

She smiled shyly and said it was an epithalamium for her forthcoming marriage. I only understood completely what she was saying when she mentioned “aure”, which meant “marriage”. I must confess that I felt an anticlimax that I instantly became ashamed of and banished. I scooped the milk into my mouth with the small ladle and enjoyed its nourishing taste with my yearning tongue. It tasted much like regular yoghurt, but had a slightly salty tang for the fura. The small globules of fura my tongue ferreted out were joyously chewed by my ready teeth. But I was still curious about the song. She tried to make me understand something: the song would only be sung for the champion of a stick-fight among her suitors! I had heard about Fulani stick-fights and how stick warriors were rushed to hospitals. There was adventure in this, no doubt, and I felt I could fight too if a guest fight could be arranged for me. I wanted to fight, but I do not know why I wanted to. Yet another part of me wanted to make them stop such a culture. I asked her when the stick-fight would happen, as much as I could in Hausa. She said, by counting up to seven with her fingers, that it would be the week after. I wanted to see the man who sired her and the other inhabitants of the commune. So I gestured upwards, pointing towards the huts. Soon we began to walk that way again. As we went along, I brought out my wallet and fished out a five hundred Naira note and pushed it into her free hand. She refused to accept it by gently pushing my hand away.

We came upon a small cowshed and a gang of three cowboys walked up to her and started conversing with her. They held long sticks, had their hairs plaited like girls and had long swords in shiny sheaths held in place by a leathery rope by their sides. Their attire was mainly Dan shiki gowns and short baggy trousers. They were looking at me furtively and at her questioningly. Suitors? I stood aside like the stranger I was. It was only then that I began to feel a little unsure of my reason for coming there alone. Was I afflicted with ajija, the Igbo spirit of aberration?

She pointed at me and my heart skipped a beat. Then I noticed that they smiled and walked up to me. We greeted one another and they offered to take me along with them to the commune. My feet suddenly grew heavy, but I had to sustain my happy-go-lucky pose or risk generating aggressive responses in my hosts. I swaggered along with them, even making strange sounds as I tried to imitate Zainab, if only to make them laugh. Well, they sure did and that helped to loosen the subtly tense atmosphere. Zainab tagged along from behind. She was humming another song that spoke of rain and the beauty of nature.

We came upon a clearing. It was tidy and on its sands there were zigzag lines made by a millet broom during the sweeping. I noted that the sweepings were dumped at a far corner of the clearing. There were five round adobe huts with low doors. The men were gathered in a circle on mats at the front of one of the huts. The eldest man sat in their centre. They were conversing cheeringly and clapping intermittently. The women were in a mango shed behind a hut, plaiting their hairs and nursing snivelling children. Two girls were milking a cow at the far end of the clearing. The cowboys began to speak Fulfulde with the elders on the mat. They were all looking up at me and talking excitedly. They were in good spirits – for what, I know not. I hoped to anchor my façade safely upon the shores of their humaneness.

Still, I had a subtle fear of the unknown. One of them quickly dashed into the hut and when he did so my heart skipped a beat again. I was expecting a sudden twist of fate like the thrust of a dagger in the air for a crazy duel or the challenge to a stick fight. But he came out carrying a round straw mat. This he spread on the ground before me and, in Hausa, invited me to sit. Of course, I sat down in lotus position like an Indian chief. I was grinning widely. I gestured that I was curious to know their ways and impressed that they lived at Enugu in a commune rather than in the north. I also said that I was there to buy a cow! Now that was an impulsive blunder, back of a sudden fear. They became very interested.

As I sat there like an Indian chief, I was very much aware that I had only the thousand Naira in my wallet that I had hoped would lead me to Enugu and back to Nsukka where I had taken off from. The thought of dragging a cow down that hillock made me almost guffaw. But I held my peace. I was interested in creating a rapport between the Igbo and the Fulani by my single visitation. I asked to take a photograph with my mobile phone. They did not fully understand my request, but after I had photographed them and they saw the snapshots, they all became very excited. The Fulani were very good posers. Men, women and children clustered around me, posing. I also increased their delight by recording their voices randomly. Zainab seemed to have had the lion’s share of my generosity. After a while, the excitement became less and I had the opportunity of sitting on my mat again. Nevertheless, Zainab had my phone for a while and she kept on taking snapshot after snapshot, a simple task she had just learnt and become enamoured of. She only stopped when the eldest man spoke to her rapidly – I sensed he told her to return the phone to me.

When she had done so, the man turned to address me in smattered English, “Igbo man, we peace people.”

“Good! Good!” I exploded.

“We have many cow,” he said.

“How much is a cow?” I asked, anyhow.

“Eighty thousand,” he answered calmly.

“I will buy it. But I have no money with me now.”

Now I had to buy a cow. Fortunately, my cousin’s wedding was coming up soon, and I knew he needed a cow.

“Igwe of Igbo know we dey here,” the elder said. “We help him for cows. He give my daughter jigida.”

“Zainab?” I asked, rather impetuously.

“Yes,” he replied, slightly surprised. “You know Zainab name?”

“She sold fura de nono to me and told me her name.”

“Oh! Leilei!” He laughed. I laughed also and for whatever he was laughing about.

“What is the name of the Igwe?”

“He stay for Enugu.”

“Okay,” I concurred, very much aware he had avoided my question. “I will come next week with money.”

“All right.” He nodded.

I stood up to go. The other men appeared relaxed by my consistent portrayal of true naked curiosity. The old man asked one of the boys to see me off. I looked around to catch sight of Zainab, but I could not see her. I had to leave, and now. Just as I stepped into the path leading downwards, Zainab appeared from her cowshed. As if on cue, my phone rang. It was my girlfriend. I told her to be patient and that I was coming. My escort was not carrying a sword. And his stick was more of a friend than a weapon by the way he held it upon his nape, with his arms dangling from it. He expressed great delight on hearing my mobile phone utter such a sweet ringing tone. He requested that I take a snapshot of him and Zainab: an exclusive snapshot. He held her hand and she turned away her face. Suitor? As I continued downwards with the cowboy, I took a backward glance and noted that Zainab was standing dejectedly, unhappy that I was going. On impulse, I ran back to her and gave her a very disarming hug. I did not care for any watchful eyes any more, even if they were those of a suitor. She melted in my arms and probably for the first time in her life, she gave a satiated sigh. Then I let her alone. But as I came down to the waiting escort, she continued to stand there. I waved at her and she waved back. As we descended from that height, her figure got smaller and smaller until she walked back slowly to her cowshed. I felt a sense of loss, but I stifled it…

To retain the friendship of my escort, whose ego I knew was not at home with that hug, I had already begun to play all the tunes I had on my phone. At first, he was only grinning. Much later, he was laughing heartily with abandon. Soon, even he too would have to go back. I shook his hand and watched him go…

A week later, I talked my cousin into buying a cow from Zainab’s father. I thought I would see a stick fight, but the Fulani man told me that it was to be held in the north, many miles away. He also told me that Zainab had travelled to the north, waiting to move into the home of the would-be champion in stick-fighting.




The Broadway 36

The terminal was just a few blocks from our apartment. Often we were the first people on the bus and had it all to ourselves. These were days in the summer months when I wasn’t at school. I would get the window seat so that I could feel the feeble air-conditioning being emitted from the metal frame. From there I’d watch the city scenes moving past me, transfixed the way I’d watch television. My mother sat by the aisle with a book opened on her lap.

Being among the first on the Broadway 36 meant we could sit near the front. We never sat at the very front, where the long seats ran lengthwise. Those were for old people and the occasional blind person with a dog – the only type of dog allowed on the bus. Why was the front so important? My mother didn’t need to say it. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but there was the assumption that – in the language of childhood – good people at the front, bad people at the back.

The bus would leave our Chicago neighbourhood, full of its Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians like us. That was how we categorised people. But as the colour of skin hides these finer distinctions, the Broadway 36 bus started its journey driving from one white neighbourhood to another.

When I was still a toddler, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr on a visit to Chicago referred to our city as “the most segregated city in America.”

The bus would roll on, stopping every few blocks, through other working-class and white neighbourhoods, passing along the commercial streets of shops and eateries. One strip of the early route followed Sheridan Road, with its residential high-rises and views of Lake Michigan. “That’s where the boss lives,” my mother would say each time as if I hadn’t heard it before. She worked for a pool of court reporters and did her typing at home. It’s the only time I’d see her look up from her book, almost as if she knew it was coming. I’d gaze at the glassy building, imagining its rooftop swimming pool and simply nod for my mother’s benefit.

The driver – usually black – would stretch his arms across the steering wheel as the bus turned off Sheridan Road. The bus would then be on Broadway Avenue and groan and squeak its way through the notorious Uptown area. It was a mixed neighbourhood. The whites who boarded often left a smell of alcohol as they swayed past us. The Hispanics and blacks would get on with the young men among them going towards the back. I knew that meant they were in some sort of trouble – or soon would be. My mother hadn’t noticed any of this. Her head remained bowed down in a book of pop psychology or some Eastern religion.

But I noticed people who appeared different from me and wondered what their lives were like. I didn’t always know what to think. From a young white girl’s point of view, the 1970s were full of contradictions. Black was cool. It was street films like Shaft and the music of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. As a baseball fan, black was also Ernie Banks and Billy Williams – two all-star players. Being a racist was clearly a bad thing – like the villains in the TV drama Roots. But at the same time, blacks and whites rarely mingled socially and after we did we would return to our own monochrome neighbourhoods.

Unlike the states in the US south, Illinois is not a state associated with Jim Crow laws, setting down the rules of segregation. You have to go back to 1853, before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery to find a law which made it illegal for a “negro” to move to the state of Illinois. But being one of the northern anti-slavery states, Illinois has a rich history of Anti-Jim Crow legislation. The 1853 act was overturned at the end of the Civil War, when a statute was written barring residency discrimination. Yet, a hundred years later Martin Luther King came to Chicago to protest housing rights and laws that confined blacks to neighbourhoods on the south and west sides.

How could this have happened? According to some sociologists, it was a matter of historical timing. In the 1890s Chicago experienced a huge economic boom and population growth. This coincided with the popular interest in the new science of eugenics. At the same time the real estate market in Chicago became organised, forming the first association of realtors (estate agents). Soon Chicago would become an international leader in real estate economics and the idea that property values were affected by the race of the people living in certain areas.

When my family arrived from Italy in the early twenties, housing covenants were being formed in Chicago. These arrangements among realtors deliberately created white and black neighbourhoods. To sustain this, the city broke away legally from the rest of the state of Illinois and created its own municipal housing code. This code forbade realtors from selling or renting property to “members of any race or nationality” into areas where their presence would be seen as “damaging property values.” This opened the floodgates in creating racially segregated neighbourhoods that still exist today.

Over the years, blacks and progressive whites have tried to put an end to this. In 1948 the US Supreme Court ruled against Chicago’s racially restrictive covenants, saying they were “unconstitutional.” But this didn’t stop property owners, landlords and homeowners’ associations from choosing who lived in which neighbourhood.

A couple of decades later, when Dr King visited Chicago, he and his supporters marched through a couple of white neighbourhoods. They were greeted by people waving confederate flags and chanting “We don’t want to integrate!” King’s popularity afforded him a meeting with the city’s long-standing and infamous mayor, Richard J Daley. The result was an agreement intended to spread social housing for blacks across city neighbourhoods and to promote more “open-housing” laws. As soon as King left town, Daley was quoted as saying the meeting produced nothing more than “a gentleman’s agreement.”

There has never been a time in Chicago when African Americans had to sit at the back of the bus, according to the laws. But like the racial segregation of neighbourhoods, what was in common practice was something else. All of these Anti-Jim Crow laws arose from the need to change human behaviours.

The Broadway 36 that began its route in our white neighbourhood, going through other white neighbourhoods and one mixed area, would eventually reach downtown. Downtown was neither white nor black – it was where people worked. The skyscrapers were filled with offices for the white-collar sector – banks, law firms, insurance and the stock and commodities markets, where my teen-self would later work. Other buildings housed the clothing shops, restaurants and bars for the convenience of the workforce. The bus would fill with workers and shoppers – black people, white people, people of all hues. They sat side by side or stood and jostled against each other. I’d look at their expressions to see if they would flinch or show disgust in these awkward moments with strangers. They never did.

Downtown was where we’d get off the bus that we had been sitting on for over an hour. Initially hit by the muggy heat in those summer months, in something of a daze, I’d follow my mother through the crowds. She’s go to an office building to drop off a box that held the loose-leaf court transcripts she had so meticulously typed or to pick up tapes that needed transcribing. As I was with her, these outings were often combined with a trip to a bakery, a diner or one of the large multi-levelled bookstores.

At the heart of the city is the Loop, named as the above-ground trains circle around the centre of downtown. Some streets after we got off, the Broadway 36 did its own loop, turning a corner and then a block later another to start its journey back again. In other words, the bus didn’t go into the black neighbourhoods of the south side.

When I was growing up the south side had a notorious reputation as a cesspool of crime – drugs, high murder rates, robberies. Before I ever stepped foot on the south side as a young adult, I held fears of it. I didn’t think it had to do with poverty, but some strange tendency that came with being a certain type of black person. At a young age, my mind followed the patterns set by the white adults around me. That I ever harboured these thoughts now makes me cringe.

When I was on these downtown trips, I noticed other buses that I had never seen in my neighbourhood. One of these buses was the King Drive 3. It went down the first street in America named after Martin Luther King. The street was christened with its new name by the same Mayor Richard J Daley who ignored King’s pleas for neighbourhood integration.

Like the Broadway bus from the north side, the King Drive bus from the south side came into downtown, did a loop and returned to its racially segregated neighbourhoods.

My mother’s tasks done, my stomach full, we boarded the Broadway 36 back to our white neighbourhood.




A Harsh Spring Light

Allan had only just sat down at his desk, but already he could feel the prickly heat radiating off his chest. Appreciatively, gratefully, he looked left out the classroom windows – always kept so clean, so clear – at the growing, darkening foliage of the trees. Swaying shadows of the wind-brushed leaves offered to him a prospect of cool restfulness, of sanctuary (Oh, if only I could, if only…). The sparkling sun – high, radiant –  touched everything in the lawns across the street – the trees; the green, thickening grass; the yellow, white, red, and pink flowers (he knew for sure that some were tulips, but he didn’t know the name of the yellow, trumpet-like flowers) – every sunlit living thing seemed charged with unnamed, unknown, but unlimited possibilities, and this same fiery, glowing, pulsating sun seemed – in fevered, unbidden, uncontrollable moments – as if surging all through and around him. He was groping for words, he didn’t fully understand, he couldn’t explain, but throughout all these final fragrant days of April, he was urgently aware of, he teemed with, a nearly irrepressible, bursting joy that each day had framed all he saw of Broadway from his seat in this second-story classroom. Except for today. Slavery today. Today in history class they would be discussing slavery.

To a few of his friends he gave a quick, perfunctory nod, but as the seats filled, he lowered his head and pretended to be concentrating on his textbook. Mr. Havens walked into the room and closed the door, shutting off all the hubbub and the shouting of the many students scrambling through the halls, making their last-minute rush to get to their classes on time. Now it was just the twenty-six or twenty-seven of them, and a close, warm, oppressive silence filled the classroom.

Mr. Havens didn’t this day drop his teacher’s book on the desk the way he often did, as if to say, wake up, wake up, you students. Instead, in a subdued tone, he said, very deliberately opening his book, “My young and budding men and women, you will please turn in your textbooks to page three hundred fifty-seven.”

Allan had his book open, but not to that page. He’d already seen it the night before. It was virtually the same as his junior year: More than half the page filled with a full-color drawing of Abraham Lincoln sitting on the upper deck of a riverboat. Thick, gooey, oblong, lugubrious, hot tears were running down Lincoln’s troubled cheeks as he watched slave women with brightly colored head rags and slave men in tattered shirts being chained up on the lower deck of the boat. “Young Lincoln,” the textbook said, “was filled with a great sadness as he witnessed firsthand this practice of slavery, and on that riverboat he swore that one day he would do something to put an end to the enslavement of the colored race.”

“When black folks was in sla-a-bber-ree—” Of a sudden, crazily, Bing Crosby flashed into Allan’s head – and there Bing was in that movie (he forgot the name of it – Hotel?), his eyes bugged out, his lips slamming down hard on every b.

When b-black folks was in sla-a-bber-ree, who was it set the darky free?                 Abbbraham A-a-bbbra-ham-m-m.

Oh, how humiliating.

How demeaning.

Allan kept his eyes trained on whatever page he’d turned to in the textbook. No eye contact with any of the other colored students, not even with Alma, who sat right next to him and whom on every other single day of school he delightedly looked forward to exchanging one or another kind of flirtatious pleasantry with. But not so today. Without even looking, he knew with near certainty that Alma, too, had her head down. Why? Maybe acknowledging this sense of shame with the other colored students made it worse? He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to look into anybody’s eyes, most definitely not look at any of the white people in the class, not even some of the ones he knew were his friends – no, especially not them.

From what seemed some far-off distance, Allan heard Mr. Havens tell the class, “There were four million Negroes held as slaves in…”

Four million. Slaves.

This year, junior year, sophomore, freshman, every spring, this was the one and only time colored people were ever mentioned in the history class. Sla-beree. Four million. Slaves!

A panicked thought rose to his mind, but just as quickly it was eased by the grateful realization that he hadn’t worn one of his dark shirts today. He didn’t remember having even thought about school when he was getting dressed this morning, but what relief he now felt in the choice he’d made. True, true, normally he actively participated in and looked forward to history class, but there was not even the slightest chance today – not the remotest – he’d be raising his hand. But still he was conscious of, he could feel, the tricklings from his underarm dampening his shirt, but, oh, thank goodness, with this light-colored check shirt, he didn’t think the perspiration, this crescent of shame, would show. Oh, I hope not. He so hoped not. And, man, hadn’t this room all of a sudden become uncomfortably warm. He lifted his head and took a quick look, and, yes, the sun had risen higher, and was now piercing through the windows.

“We cannot avoid the conclusion,” Mr. Havens said, “that the practice of slavery, the holding in bondage of millions of human beings, represented a palpable contradiction, a sharp polarity, as it were, with all the ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers in our Declaration of Independence and further sanctioned in our Constitution. Yes,” Mr. Havens said, acknowledging a raised hand.

“But to me, I mean, I think we have to realize, you know, that this was a very, very, very different time, and I don’t think, really, I mean, I would say it’s not fair at all to judge the ideas and the people back then based on today’s standards, because—”

No surprise here. That old prejudiced Phillip was one of that group of pro-South defenders in the school. It was hardly a secret, just about everybody in class (in the school) knew that he and some of his buddies had started up some kind of Robert E. Lee admiration society.

“I don’t agree with that at all. Not at all!”

“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and I say slavery was totally wrong!”

“Exactly. This is America!”

“And no matter what they may have thought back then, here in the twentieth century, we have to say that slavery was wrong!”

One after another, Harry, Janet, Cathy, and John were quick to make clear their marked opposition to Phillip.

“Yes, Allan,” Mr. Havens said, and now a searing wave of heat flushed through Allan’s whole frame, but then immediately, with a relief that left him nearly limp, he realized that Mr. Havens had pointed to the raised hand of the other Alan in class, the white one.

Thank you, Mr. Havens. Thank you, thank you, oh, thank you so much.

And now comes a winding, fact-filled response. The white Alan was one of the true eggheads of the class, of the entire school. But Allan actually liked him, even admired this other Alan. He felt sorry for him, too – all those flaming splotches of red acne on his face and down his neck. And then the warts, too, on his right hand. Allan took a brief look up and to his right as Alan was speaking, and in the next row over he noticed Dawn, who’d again come into class with her eyes glistening. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Havens had had to escort her out of the classroom and try to console her. But Allan and all the class could still hear her out in the hall, sobbing in wave after wave. Word had slowly circulated that her father had apparently moved out on the family. And even in these following days, all out of nowhere the classroom discussion might be interrupted by a half-stifled, shuddering sigh from Dawn. “Should you be excused for a moment?” Mr. Havens had asked on one of these occasions. “No, thank you,” Dawn had said, the slightest tremor in her voice, her head bowed low towards her desk.

And look at those clothes Monty has to wear to school. That oversized blue? green? beige? that shirt so faded you can’t even tell what its true color is, or was. And then those rumpled-up pants he wears, just about every day. And then look at me, with my multi-colored, long-sleeve knit shirts, with their long pointed collars, my short-sleeve Banlons, my double- and triple-pleated pants (two of them iridescent – straight from Maxwell Street), my old-man comforts, all shined up like in that poem about Ulysses, “burnished,” or as the fellas would say, with a “boss gloss on my kicks.” And this is not even including my letter sweater, with those three huge purple T’s stitched diagonally across my chest like some gigantic lightning bolt! And then on top of that I have my loving, gorgeous girlfriend, Norma!

And confirmation was hardly needed, but only a few issues back the survey of students by the Thorntonite had shown a nearly unanimous vote for Allan as one of the school’s best-dressed seniors. And this past fall – the amazement had gradually diminished, but Allan still found himself in wonderment as to how it had happened – he’d come in second in the voting for Homecoming King. And Thornton has at least four thousand-plus students, and is at least (what?) sixty/sixty-five percent white. Sure, sure, all, or practically all, the colored students had voted for him. And he was all but certain that Chris had voted for him, too, and probably Joe, Ray, Fletcher, and Soderquist, and very likely, too, Virginia and Carl, and Linda and Big Al, and very surely as well, the twins, Jean and Jane. And he felt confident he’d gotten the vote from some of his other white classmates, including Wayne, Mary, and from Jacki, Candy, Sue (and Sue), Dean, Peggy, and Bob. But still, sixty/sixty-five (maybe even seventy) percent white – and he’d come in second! So wasn’t he just as good as any of his white classmates? Yes, I am. Yes! I! Am! But despite all the force of his Yes, Allan was acutely conscious of, felt keenly aware of, an undertow of doubt, a wavering in his assertions, a lack of an unshakeable conviction. Yes, I am, yes, I am, I am, I am, but then, see, they don’t have to sit up here in the classroom and listen all day to their whole race being talked about in head rags and chains.

Slaberee!

When would this class be over! When! And no, he couldn’t, those days were long past now. No, he wasn’t back at Warren Palm in grade school. So no, he couldn’t raise his hand and ask for permission to lay his head on his desk. No, he couldn’t fold his arms and cradle his head and shut out this world, shut out this classroom. No, he had to endure this discussion, this history until the bell rang, until class would be dismissed, when he then would dismiss this class and all this history from his mind. But when would it be over!

Seeking relief he looked again to the window, but the day had now grown intolerably hot. The sun was glistening and glaring sharply off the windows and the bordering chrome of the cars parked just up the street left in the drivers’-ed. parking lot. A sharper wind was kicking up dust and jumbling and tossing scraps of paper all along the curb on Broadway, and the “Resident-Only Parking” signs were reflecting the sun’s fierce light in pointed spears. And now this harsh, invasive light filled the classroom, charging everything with a nearly suffocating intensity and a feverish vividness: the white and pink and red of the white faces, the black, and yellow, and brown of the colored faces, the hot, scalding tears flowing down Abraham Lincoln’s cheeks, this river of tears now firing and burning red across Allan’s chest, the years, and years, and years, and years, and years of being somebody’s servant, somebody’s chattel, somebody’s prop—

“And so for tomorrow, my young fledglings—”

Oh, finally, relief! The class, it was over, it was over, it was done. Tomorrow the Civil War, tomorrow back to white history.

Allan got up from his desk – eyes lowered and fixed straight ahead – and fled the classroom as quickly as he could. None of that chit-chatting after class today. With a sigh, an exhalation of gratitude, of relief, he stepped into the hall, turned and walked to his left, and, strange as it seemed to him, he stopped – for the briefest moment (he felt the urge to raise his hands as if towards the sky, but he couldn’t do that – he knew he didn’t dare take such a pause and not be the target of all kinds of teasing for the rest of the school year) – and closed his eyes and let himself bask in the welcoming warmth of this sun-filled section of the corridor, with its great, nearly floor-to-ceiling, windows on both sides. Maybe the sun was just less intense now that he was standing here on the more easterly side of the hall? He didn’t know and no matter. It was on to his next class, English (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…”), which was another of his favorites, and as he looked up ahead, his heart lifted at the immediate prospect of taking the short flight of stairs to the second floor of the older, darker, cooler part of the school building. And this was his last class for the day, and then baseball practice. He could already feel his fingers tightening, tightening around the small end of that bat, and then – Smash! He was going to knock the cover off that white ball, and watch it soar, soar, soar! high over the center field bleachers and keep soaring, and soaring right into and then out over Wrigley Field, all the way out onto Waveland Avenue – like Mr. Cub – and then he’d get that rousing “Hey! Hey!” from Jack Brickhouse!

As he approached his English classroom, Allan felt, and was aware of feeling, a sense almost of buoyancy. He knew they were going to be studying (“scanning”, Mrs. Goodwin had corrected him yesterday) this new poem he’d taken immediately to heart from that very first reading in class, “Ode to the West Wind”. “O, wind, if Winter comes,” he repeated, crossing the threshold into the classroom, “can Spring be far behind?”




Animal Kingdom

It’s the eyes, man. The fucking eyes. They look at ye like yer something disgusting, something deplorable. But also something to be pitied. Like a mangy dog, man. Like a scabby fucking stray. They see the dog, and they tut and whisper among themsels. A pure sin, they’ll say, what a shame. But would they help the dog? Would they fuck. They’d look at it, everybody always looks, but they’d just as quick look at the floor. They’d cross the street and quicken their pace. They’d clutch their handbags, or their bairn’s hand, tighter against their body. The dog’s no to be trusted.

And how? How do they even know? Ye walked into the town centre, away from the prison gates. This was a deliberate act. You’re jist getting on that bus the same as everybody else.

Ye have yer carrier bag, could it be that? Everything ye own, yer entire worldly possessions, stuffed and crumpled intae a cheap plastic bag. And yer shirt. Only it’s no your shirt, yours was torn and bloody. Your shirt was taken fae ye the night you were lifted. No, this is some charity shop shirt they gave ye on the way out. A minging, fusty smelling thing some auld cunt probably died in. It looks fucking terrible. Its two sizes too big for a start. Ye’ve tried to make the best of it by tucking it into yer trackies, but it looks like a dug’s dinner man.

But no, it’s no even that. It’s no yer clothes, or yer cheap fucking carrier bag. Not really. Ye just have the look, man.

Fuck thum. Ye look back at them, challenging their stare. ’Mon then, that look says. Ye got a fuckin problem it asks, and ye jut yer jaw defiantly towards them. And their eyes flicker wi panic then. They look at their shoes, fiddle with their tickets, they shift their bags onto the space next to them. This seat’s taken, the bags say. And it’s always the same fucking dance man, the same auld routine, from back before ye were even inside. It’s fucking tiresome. And it’s detrimental tae yer plight. ’Cause ye dinae want to fight. Ye want tae talk to people, tae make them understand that ye’ve changed. But how do they know ye’ve changed when they dinae even know who ye were to begin with? And why should ye have to justify yerself tae this lot, tae complete strangers? Nah, fuck thum.

So ye sit up the back, in the furthest away seat. This is where they want ye tae sit, where they expect ye tae sit. This is where ye belong – the back row. The back eh the classroom, the class clown, the fucking dunce. Where were you when they gave out the brains? The back eh the queue. The back eh the dole queue. Fucking jobless. Fucking hopeless.

Yer stomach fills with bile and anger, the familiar venomous anger man. The same rage that’s bubbled inside ye aw yer life. It runs through yer veins and seeps out yer pores like a toxic, twisted sneer.

But no, this is no who you are. No anymore. These cunts don’t know you, they’re ignorant, oblivious. Ye have tae push on. Naebody said it was gony be easy, naebody’s gony hold yer fucking hand. Take every chance that comes man, grab the bull by the fucking horns, prove to yerself yer a changed fucking man.

What about this lassie getting on? This is the sort eh chance ye were on about. Go on, fucking talk tae her. She looks pretty, like. And about your age too. Legs that go aw the way up tae Aberdeen, and a tidy wee set eh tits. But she’s got an intelligent look about her, a confidence. It’s intimidating man. It makes her look like a woman, no a wee lassie. No like the birds back on the estate. They just seem pure immature man. They talk and there’s nae intelligence there, it’s just vulgar, always just a mouthful eh idiocy. No like this lassie, she’s got a nice mouth like, real sensuous lips. And her body, lithe but curvy beneath her clothes. Nice clothes, real expensive looking. Too expensive, too expensive for the likes eh you. Shut up. Jist shut up. The bull man, fucking grab it for fuck sake.

Ye stagger a bit, ’cause the bus is moving now, and ye grip the pole to regain yer balance. Using the pole, ye swing yer body onto the seat next to her and the tired fabric sinks on impact. Yer arm brushes against her naked flesh. It was an accident, but it sort of wasnae, and it’s like a jolt of electricity runs up yer skin. This is the first time ye’ve touched a lassie in donkeys man and the hairs prickle on yer arm. It must affect her tae, but no in the same way as you, ’cause she flinches and stiffens. Her body is tense, rigid, and her gaze remains locked on the passing cars outside the window.

Ye sniff and ye lean intae her a bit, looking out the window too, all casual like. Ye look around the bus, nodding yer head, as if ye’re satisfied with yer surroundings, then ye drum a wee tune on yer thigh, yer left foot going like yon fucking rabbit fae the Bambi film. Ye sniff again and let out a low whistle then ye start tae rummage about in yer bag.

Fucking bingo. The National Geographic, one eh the ones ye chored fae the wee library they had inside. It’s yer favourite one, the one wi the lions. This’ll impress her, ’cause ye know aw about the lions. The lions – aw the animals as a matter eh fact – they’re sort eh your thing eh. They’re what you liked to read about inside. What kept your mind occupied. So ye flick the magazine open on yer knee and ye look up at her, and ye look back down and the magazine. And back up tae her, and ye raise yer eyebrows and gesture down at the pages.

But she’s no biting man. She’s staring out the window, aw intense like. And ye want tae tell her. About the lions like. Ye want to tell her that the darker the lion’s mane, the mare chance he’ll have eh attracting a mate. And that his roar can be heard from five miles away. Ye want to tell her that the female lion does aw the hunting but the big male always eats first. Ye want to say that you disagree wi that philosophy and if it was you that was the big lion you’d let yer woman go first ’cause that’s the kind eh man that you are.

And then she’s standing up.

“Excuse me,” she says. “This is ma stop.”

Ye lift yer bag from the floor and ye twist yer knees to let her by, but there’s no much room and she faces forward and inches past ye. Her arse is right in yer face then and her hair curls all the way down tae the bottom eh her back. It’s long and luscious and blonde. Ye close yer eyes and smell, and it smells so sweet, so clean. What does it smell like? Like mango, or passion fruit? Ye dunno, but it smells so exotic man, like something far off, like in the jungle or something, the rain forest or safari, and when ye open yer eyes she’s gone.

The smell lingers though, ye catch whiffs of it every now and then, teasing yer nostrils, tantalising, invading yer senses. Ye keep yer eyes shut, blocking out the auld snooty cunts on the bus. Blocking out aw the guards fae the jail, yer fellow inmates, yer auld crew, yer ex-missus. Blocking out the polis, the judges, yer teachers. Blocking out yer ma and her boyfriend and yer brer. Immersing yerself in that faraway, unattainable scent. And when ye open them again ye see the sign – Welcome To The Kingdom Of Fife – and ye sigh man, ’cause ye’re home.




Reproduction Furniture

When I try to understand this place, I don’t. The cups are hovering over the tables, and liquid is suspended in clouds above the cups. Chair legs do not reach the floor. The chair that is opposite mine is empty. I am waiting. Is that my mother? Where is she?

Sit down, I say. The chair is still empty.

The chair is not empty. The police officer is there. My chair is the empty one.

Sit down, says the officer.

I sit down.

Can you tell me exactly what happened? says the officer.

Yes, I say. It happened because I was assumed to be a woman.

Can you tell me exactly what happened? says the officer. Where was it that you got on the bus?

At the stop behind the memorial, I say.

And which route was it? Do you remember? says the officer.

The one that goes to the central station. The night route because it was already past ten, I say.

And where did the person you’re accusing get on? What time was that? says the officer.

Two stops later, I say. By the arches. It was half past ten or nearly eleven.

The chair is empty. The varnished wood is curved in ways that cast reflections of origins I can’t make out.

The chair is not empty. The doctor is there. My chair is the empty one.

Sit down, says the doctor.

I sit down.

Can you tell me what the problem is? says the doctor.

Yes, I say. It’s because it’s assumed that I am a woman.

Can you tell me when the problem started? says the doctor.

I can remember it happening at school, so it must have been at least ten years, I say.

How many times a day? says the doctor.

Usually eight or nine, I say. But the number isn’t really the problem. The problem is the pain and when it comes suddenly.

What kind of pain is it you have? says the doctor.

Like anger, I say. Like swells of rage that aren’t mine but against me.

Does it bleed? says the doctor.

It bleeds with no blood, I say.

The doctor blinks. The police officer blinks.

What happened when this person got on? says the officer.

He didn’t pay, I say. He didn’t buy a ticket.

Where did he sit? Next to you? says the officer.

He went past all the other empty pairs and sat down next to me, I say. There was plenty of space. There was no one in the rows in front of me or behind. There were only two passengers right at the back.

So he chose to sit next to you, says the officer.

He tried to sit on my bag, I say. I was next to the window and my bag was on the aisle seat. He tried to sit on my bag so I moved it.

You moved it so that he could sit down? says the officer.

I moved it, I say. I put it down between my feet.

What happens when it suddenly rages? says the doctor.

It attacks me, I say. It bites from inside.

Does it leave enough time? says the doctor. Or not.

Sometimes not, I say.

And then? says the doctor,

Usually not, I say. Then it’s too late.

Did he touch you on purpose? the police officer says.

I could see his arm, I say. I was turned to the window but I could still see his arm. It was leaning and coming so I looked harder through the window and then I felt his hand on my leg. I was trying to look at the streetlamps and railings.

On your leg, says the officer.

On the top of my leg, I say. And then between.

And then? says the officer.

The organ in question is like a balloon. It fills and has to release, says the doctor.

I know that, I say. But why does it release with the anger it has?

There are factors that can cause it, says the doctor. Many factors. In your case there is no infection and there seems to be no damage to muscle. It may be a nervous effect in your case.

It’s been ten years or more, I say. I remember it from when I was younger.

Yes, says the doctor. I’ve written that. Was there something at that age that caused nervous irritation?

And then? says the officer.

Nothing, I say. I didn’t move or look. I just felt it and waited and then he left the bus.

When did he leave? says the officer. How much later?

I don’t know how long it was. At the stop halfway over the bridge, I say.

Why didn’t you call out for help? says the officer.

I didn’t know what to do, I say. I got off the bus at the end of the line and I waited on the platform at the station for my train. I arrived at home and I went to bed.

You didn’t think to call us? the officer says.

My mother was asleep, I say. I called in the morning instead. I was tired.

Sometimes there are things that a person holds in that grow inside and then burst, says the doctor.

I was the shape of a girl at school and I did things that girl shapes weren’t meant to do, I say. I had thoughts I wasn’t supposed to have.

And it hurt you, says the doctor.

They hurt me, I say.

I wonder why my mother is so late. The lightbulbs are leering unlatched from their fixtures. The hands of the clock are pointing at holes. I wonder why my mother is late, but she isn’t. The chair is not empty. My mouth is open and my words are of shapes. I watch to see if the tea my mother pours will stay in the cups.




Jo Ann Robinson

The youngest of twelve children, Jo Ann Robinson was born in Culloden, Georgia. She was the first college graduate in her family, and later earned a master’s degree. In 1949, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama to teach English at Alabama State College. In 1955, following the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, Robinson distributed flyers calling on African Americans to boycott city buses. The Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Martin Luther King Jr., appointed her to their executive board. In June of 1956, segregated seating was declared unconstitutional by Alabama’s federal district court.

*

When you learn to move like someone always hungry and hollow, it gets easy not to overflow the borders of your body. Easy not to be yourself. Turned inward and scrubbed clean. But not too clean. Never better. Never better than them.

It was only one paragraph, a name and an arrest, but it made Jo Ann feel full. If she ate one letter a day, tearing the newspaper into bits, it could last her weeks.

After it got dark, she went to Alabama State’s business department to see John. She knew the chairman using school property for something like this could lead to anything. So she hands the paper to him, only her eyes speaking. His immediate nod fills her up even more.

It was the empty seats that did it. That momentary feeling she was safe. That she could have this one thing. This one small respite. Not taking it away. Not stealing it. Just climbing onto a bus and sitting down in a seat occupied by no one. Years have passed but the bus driver’s rage, as immediate as John’s nod, took every good feeling away from her. She was going to be humiliated. She was going to be hurt. And it was going to be done by a man who thought her incapable of either emotion. A snapping of her back into place, her place, hungry and hollow, a stamp across her forehead. And she let it happen. As the driver advanced towards her, Jo Ann fled. Scraped her knuckles, her knees. Fled as if she had no right to be.

When night ends and the bright hits your eyes, sadness doesn’t start over again. Each day and the next and the next it builds, weighing on your heart until each beat hurts, sending little slivers of pain up and down your arms, behind your eyes, pressing, pressing, falling drop by drop, a puddle in your hands. As she walked home that day, years ago, eyes averted from every bus stop, she knew the pain would get worse until it felt like nothing at all. Until it was all she ever expected to feel. All she deserved. But that little piece, that little shard of all she really was had slipped away, hidden itself in that empty space under her heart and waited. Waited for now. She feels it crawl out, tentatively at first then running, running, sparking in her eyes. She sees it at the edges of her vision as she circles the mimeograph’s pressure roller, the ink staining each leaflet like fingerprints. She isn’t sure how many blacks live in Montgomery, but doesn’t stop turning until she reaches 50,000.

“If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue.
The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.
Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday.”

The next day, Jo Ann presses the tape to the edges of each flyer, running her fingers down them quickly, the heat spreading throughout her body. She turns and looks at telephone poles, bus stops, brick walls, her words flashing like neon.

The moment feels brittle, like it could just break if she so much as breathes too loud. She wants to suspend it, and make it end, both yearning for and afraid of what happens after. It might be good, it might be bad, but it will be different and that is enough. So she waits, knowing after years she can spare another moment. Just one. Jo Ann waits, hand over her fully intact heart, praying she isn’t the only one holding her breath.




To the shore and to life

From the novel White Chrysanthemum, published by Chatto & Windus.

It is nearly dawn, and the semi-darkness casts strange shadows along the footpath. Hana distracts her mind so that she doesn’t imagine creatures reaching for her ankles. She is following her mother down to the sea. Her nightdress streams behind her in the soft wind. Quiet footsteps pad behind them, and she knows without looking back that her father is following with her little sister still asleep in his arms. On the shore, a handful of women are already waiting for them. She recognises their faces in the rising dawn light, but the shaman is a stranger. The holy woman wears a red and royal blue traditional hanbok dress, and as soon as they descend upon the sand, the shaman begins to dance.

The huddling figures step away from her twirling motions and form into a small group, mesmerised by the shaman’s grace. She chants a greeting to the Dragon Sea God, welcoming him to their island, beckoning him to travel through the bamboo gates towards Jeju’s tranquil shores. The sun sparkles on the horizon, a pinpoint of iridescent gold, and Hana blinks at the newness of the coming day. It is a forbidden ceremony, outlawed by the occupying Japanese government, but her mother is insistent upon holding a traditional gut ritual before her first dive as a fully-fledged haenyeo. The shaman is asking for safety and a bountiful catch. As the shaman repeats the words over and over, Hana’s mother nudges her shoulder and together they bow, foreheads touching the wet sand, to honour the Dragon Sea God’s imminent arrival. As she stands, her sister’s sleepy voice whispers, “I want to dive, too,” and the yearning in her voice tugs on Hana’s heart. “You will be standing here one day soon, Little Sister, and I will be right beside you to welcome you,” she whispers back, confident of the future that lies ahead of them.

Salty seawater drips down her temple, and she wipes it away with the back of her hand. I am a haenyeo now, Hana thinks, watching the shaman twirl white ribbons in circles along the shore. She reaches for her sister’s small hand. Side by side they stand, listening to the waves tumbling onto the beach. The ocean is the only sound as the small group silently acknowledges her acceptance into their order. When the sun rises fully above the ocean waves, she will dive with the haenyeo in deeper waters and take her place among the women of the sea. But first they must return to their homes in secret, hidden from prying eyes.

*

Hana, come home. Her sister’s voice is loud in her ears, jolting her back to the present, to the room and the soldier still asleep on the floor beside her. The ceremony fades into the darkness. Desperate not to let it go, Hana squeezes her eyes shut.

She has been held captive for nearly two months, but time moves painfully slowly in this place. She tries not to look back on what she has endured, what they force her to do, what they command her to be. At home, she was someone else, something else.

Ages seem to have passed since then, and Hana feels nearer to the grave than to memories of home. Her mother’s face swimming up to meet her in the waters. The salt water on her lips. Fragments of memories of a happier place.

The ceremony was one of power and strength, just like the women of the sea, just like Hana. The soldier lying next to her stirs. He will not defeat her, she promises herself. She lies awake all night imagining how she will escape.

*

Hana

Jeju Island, Summer 1943

Hana is sixteen and knows nothing but a life lived under occupation. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and Hana speaks fluent Japanese, is educated in Japanese history and culture, and is prohibited from speaking, reading or writing in her native Korean. She is a second-class citizen with second-class rights in her own country, but that does not diminish her Korean pride. Hana and her mother are haenyeo, women of the sea, and they work for themselves. They live in a tiny village on Jeju Island’s southern coast and dive in a cove hidden from the main road that leads into town. Hana’s father is a fisherman. He navigates the South Sea with the other village men, evading imperial fishing boats that loot Korea’s coastal waters for produce to repatriate back to Japan. Hana and her mother only interact with Japanese soldiers when they go to market to sell their day’s catch. It creates a sense of freedom not many on the other side of the island, or even on mainland Korea, a hundred miles to the north, enjoy. The occupation is a taboo topic, especially at market; only the brave dare to broach it, and even then only in whispers and behind cupped hands. The villagers are tired of the heavy taxes, the forced donations to the war effort, and the taking of men to fight on the front lines and children to work in factories in Japan.

On Hana’s island, diving is women’s work. Their bodies suit the cold depths of the ocean better than men’s. They can hold their breath longer, swim deeper, and keep their body temperature warmer, so for centuries, Jeju women have enjoyed a rare independence. Hana followed her mother into the sea at an early age. Learning to swim began the moment she could lift her head on her own, though she was nearly eleven the first time her mother took her into the deeper waters and showed her how to cut an abalone from a rock on the sea floor. In her excitement, Hana lost her breath sooner than expected and had to race upwards for air. Her lungs burned. When she finally broke the surface, she breathed in more water than oxygen. Sputtering with her chin barely above the waves, she was disorientated and began to panic. A sudden swell rolled over her, submerging her in an instant. She swallowed more water as her head dipped beneath the surface.

With one hand, her mother lifted Hana’s face above the water. Hana gulped in air between racking coughs. Her nose and throat burned. Her mother’s hand, secured at the nape of her neck, re assured her until she recovered.

“Always look to the shore when you rise, or you can lose your way,” her mother said, and turned Hana to face the land. There on the sand, her younger sister sat protecting the buckets containing the day’s catch. “Look for your sister after each dive. Never forget. If you see her, you are safe.”

When Hana’s breaths had returned to normal, her mother released her and commenced diving with a slow forward somersault down into the ocean’s depths. Hana watched her sister a few moments longer, taking in the serene sight of her resting on the beach, waiting for her family to return from the sea. Fully recovered, Hana swam to the buoy and added her abalone to her mother’s catch, which was stowed safely in a net. Then she performed her own somersault, down into the ocean’s thrumming interior, in search of another sea creature to add to their harvest.

Her sister was too young to dive with them when they were that far from the shore. Sometimes, when Hana surfaced, she would look first to the shore to find her sister chasing after seagulls, waving sticks wildly in the air. She was like a butterfly dancing across Hana’s sightline.

Hana was already seven years old when her sister was finally born. She had worried she would be an only child her whole life. She had wished for a younger sibling for so long –  all of her friends had two, three, or sometimes even four brothers and sisters to play with each day and to share the burden of household chores, while she had to suffer everything alone. But then her mother became pregnant, and Hana swelled with such hope that she beamed each time she caught a glimpse of her mother’s growing stomach.

“You’re much fatter today, aren’t you, Mother?” she asked the morning of her sister’s birth.

“Very, very fat and uncomfortable!” her mother replied, and tickled Hana’s taut stomach.

She tumbled onto her back and giggled with delight. Once she had caught her breath, Hana sat beside her mother and placed a hand on the outermost curve of her bulging stomach.

“My sister or brother must be nearly done, right, Mother?”

“Nearly done? You speak as though I’m boiling rice inside my belly, silly girl!”

“Not rice, my new sister … or brother,” Hana added quickly, and felt a timid kick against her hand. “When will she, or he, come out?”

“Such an impatient daughter sits before me.” Her mother shook her head in resignation. “Which would you prefer, a sister or a brother?”

Hana knew the correct answer was a brother, so that her father would have a son to share his fishing knowledge with, but in her head she answered differently. I hope you have a daughter, so that one day, she can swim in the sea with me.

Her mother went into labour that evening, and when they showed Hana her baby sister, she couldn’t contain her happiness. She smiled the widest smile her face had ever known, yet tried with all her might to speak as though she was disappointed.

“I’m sorry that she is not a son, Mother, truly sorry,” Hana said, shaking her head in mock sorrow.

Then Hana turned to her father and pulled his shirtsleeve. He leaned down, and she cupped her hands around his ear.

“Father, I must confess something to you. I’m very sorry for you, that she is not a son to learn your fishing skills, but…” She took a deep breath before finishing. “But I’m so happy I have a sister to swim with.”

“Is that so?” he asked.

“Yes, but don’t tell Mother.”

At seven years old, Hana was not skilled in the art of whispering, and gentle laughter rippled through the group of her parents’ closest friends. Hana grew quiet. Her ears burned. She hid behind her father and peeked at her mother from underneath his arm to see if she had also heard. Her mother gazed at her eldest daughter and then looked down at the hungry infant suckling her breast and whispered to her newest daughter, just loud enough for Hana to hear.

“You are the most loved little sister in the whole of Jeju Island. Do you know that? No one will ever love you more than your big sister.”

When she looked up at Hana, she motioned for her to come to her side. The adults in the room grew quiet as Hana knelt beside her mother.

“You are her protector now, Hana,” her mother said in a serious tone.

Hana gazed at her tiny baby sister. She reached out to caress the black tuft of hair sprouting from her scalp.

“She’s so soft,” Hana said with wonder.

“Did you hear what I said? You are a big sister now, and with that comes responsibilities, and the first one is that of protector. I won’t always be around; diving in the sea and selling at the market keeps us fed, and it will be left up to you to watch over your little sister from now on when I can’t. Can I rely on you?” her mother asked, her voice stern.

Hana’s hand shot back to her side. She bowed her head and dutifully answered.

“Yes, Mother, I will keep her safe. I promise.”

“A promise is forever, Hana. Never forget.”

“I will remember, Mother, always,” Hana said, her eyes glued onto her little sister’s peacefully dozing face. Milk dripped from the side of the baby’s open mouth, and her mother wiped it with a swipe of her thumb.

As the years passed, and Hana began to dive with her mother in the deeper waters, she grew accustomed to seeing her sister in the distance, the girl who shared her blankets at night and whispered silly stories into the darkness, until she finally succumbed to sleep. The girl who laughed at everything and anything, a sound that made everyone nearby join in. She became Hana’s anchor, to the shore and to life.




Where Are We Now

The ongoing project, “Where Are We Now”, is a series of linoleum cut prints in comic strip format in two matrixes, one in a comic-strip style and another in repetition of the strip. The series is about me and my dad’s struggle after my mother’s passing in 2009 in Los Angeles. As an immigrant family to the United States, overcoming emotional and financial damage wasn’t easy, especially when other families and friends were living far away in our homeland. Through comic prints, I portray the confusion and depression my family went through and how we dealt with my dad’s alcoholism after loss.

My works overall reflect on past experiences and feelings. In my prints and comics I have been working on the concept of “a black room”, which comes from memories of a dark room in childhood and as a young adult after a series of traumatic events. Lack of privacy and the need for my own space, from constant moving and room-sharing, have made me create a small room in my head. “Black room” is a physical and spatial visualization of where feelings and memories stay. The idea of “a black room” is often illustrated in the “Where Are We Now” prints.

 

Rain

 

 

dad, you didn’t mean to say that because I didn’t

 

 

One Afternoon

 

 

In the Shower

 

 

Lost in Translation

 

 

My Dad

 

 




South Korea is what North Korea is not, or is it more complex?

As a young child, I recall tracking the aeroplane on the inflight map as it move towards Seoul Incheon International Airport, yet was always puzzled by what that country above the line on the map where South Korea ended and another country began. I would always hear about “North Korea, this, North Korea, that” from the chatter of family, the blaring of the news on the radio and television back home in the United Kingdom. To me, this raised two questions. First, what was this mysterious “North” that everyone was talking about, yet that I could never see for myself? And secondly, if the “North” was always couched in such negative terms, what about the “South” – what was so good about the South?

North Korea has been, and in this day and age, is increasingly, at the forefront of global affairs, whether due to its authoritarian rule, ongoing nuclear development, impoverished citizens, or hearing about the plight of North Korean citizens fleeing the oppression of their country to seek refuge abroad. In contrast with this somewhat bleak picture, South Korea is portrayed as an economic giant, a hub of cosmopolitanism, with highly-educated, highly-skilled citizens. A satellite map with which we are all too familiar shows a light-filled South Korea, yet north of the 38th parallel, the doldrums of darkness. Clichéd this may be, but in order to understand these two nation-states, we must try and understand them through their individual attributes, not simply what each nation-state is not. “North” and “South” have been dualisms incorporated in a wide variety of circumstances, whether the North–South divide in the United Kingdom, the wealth of the Global North in comparison to the aspirations of the Global South, or the most prominent demarcation between two once-united nation-states, North and South Korea. But before we can do this, it is important to unpack the foundation of such dualistic comparisons.

One of the central postulations of Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism is the means by which definition of the self is inherently comparative. The “self” is defined in opposition to the “other”, the “East” in opposition to the “West”. As is becoming increasingly prevalent in a world shaken and divided by the vicissitudes of Brexit, populism, and the re-emergence of boundaries, we are not who we are, but who we are not. For just as the “East” is what the West is not, as in Said’s work, the Remainers are those who did not vote Leave, in as much as one political party is defined by what is lacking in an opposition party. Tracing back through history, this is nothing new. We see this in the rhetoric of colonialism, where, as Homi Bhabha posits, the colonized peoples were defined not just by their indigenous roots, culture, and language, but also by who they were not: the colonized were not the same as the colonizers, no matter how hard the latter tried to convert them. As Bhabha states, colonized peoples were “almost the same, but not quite, almost the same, but not quite White.” It is this frame that has been, and continues to be, a central imaginary for the two countries situated north and south of the 38th parallel. Yet whilst it may helpful in assisting understanding both North and South Korea, it is not the only way of doing so.

It is easy to categorize North and South Korea as polar opposites: autocracy versus democracy, restriction versus freedom, no rights versus human rights, the list can go on, yet too often we think of the demilitarized zone as a dividing line not just between the physical states of the DPRK and the ROK, but also between the two cultures: the darkness of the North versus the bright lights of the South. Even so, we must not view South Korea through rose-tinted spectacles.

 

South Korea: not as rosy as it may sound

South Korea has largely become defined by through not being North Korea: the Republic of Korea without the “Democratic People’s” added to its name. Though showered with superlatives of everything that its northern counterpart is not – Asian Tiger, economic powerhouse, and the cultivation for cosmopolitan citizens – we rarely look at the more everyday elements of life in South Korea, where things may not be as optimistic as is often portrayed. South Korea may be what North Korea is not, but that does not mean that South Korea is a paradise on earth.

In recent times, the political scene of South Korea has come to the fore of global news. The downfall of former President Park Geun-hye (who has just been sentenced to twenty-four years behind bars, for corruption), and the arrest of Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, also on corruption charges, continues the trend that corruption in South Korean politics is nothing new. Historic examples include the cash-for-summit scandal surrounding the “Nelson Mandela of Korea”, Kim Dae Jung, in securing the landmark North–South summit in 2003, and the 22.5 years imprisonment and sentencing to death for Roh Tae-woo and Chun doo-hwan respectively, for bribery and corruption, in 1996 (the latter two were subsequently pardoned). But beyond the area of big-“P” high-politics, what about the everyday level? Whilst South Korean society may not suffer from the authoritarian burden that those in the North have to face, corruption remains rife even within the small-“p” political scene.

The Kim Young-ran anti-graft law, first proposed in 2012, and upheld by the South Korean Constitution in September 2016, was one step into transforming the ROK from not just an “Asian Tiger”,  but also to an “anti-corruption Tiger”. Aimed to clamp down on improper solicitation, bribery, and corruption, the law renders it illegal for public officials to accept gifts of more than 50,000 won (about £35), or 10,000 won (£7) at private events (such as weddings and funerals). Dinner expenditures are limited to 30,000 won (£25). For a society where taking a whole team of potential business employees for dinner – where one person pays – is part and parcel of tradition, and where gift-giving is commonplace, the law has been criticized for going against the grain of cultural norms. But what is it really trying to address? At the more everyday level, potential business partners giving under-the-table “gifts” to potential employees, parents giving “gifts” to colleagues working at universities to which they wish their children to attend; these stories are not characteristic of South Korean society, but they are sadly also not uncommon.

Moreover, South Korea is a remarkably unequal society, whether in terms of gender, LGBT, or disability rights. Hierarchical and patriarchal legacies of yesteryear continue: hotel employees, for example, much prefer the job security of working for an international hotel chain, managed by a non-Korean boss, in contrast to having a Korean as a boss. When I asked why the latter may not be preferred, the answer was surprising: the chance of receiving regular pay, as well as fair treatment across employees, was much lower. This is a society in which norms and traditions roll on. And even at the more everyday level, I recall stories of relatives working in a Korean-owned store, being paid far less than their contract stated: “whatever the manager says, goes” was the reason.

These examples show that South Korea is not immune from societal plagues: it is a society defined by the mantra that if you miss the train, there is no next train coming. A society where the global phenomenon of “tiger mums” emerged, doing all they can for their children’s educational success, and, dare I say, this includes participating in the corrupt mechanisms undergirding societal interactions. In our comparisons of North and South, fuelled by comparisons of “self” versus “other”, we often overlook our more critical understandings of the latter. And whilst the prominence of the corruption trials of past Presidents Park and Lee may be shedding greater light on the prevalence of the hidden nature of South Korean society, we should not lose focus on the everyday.

Yet through visualizing North Korea as what the South is not, and vice versa, perhaps we can focus more on what unites the two countries, rather than what dives them. Words of pride, nationalism – the uniquely Korean-based nationalism of minjokjuui – and nationhood are today more resonant with division and fragmentation, pitting man against man, separating us from them. But can this help develop a more nuanced understanding of the two Koreas?

 

What unites us, not divides us?

The plight of North Korean defectors – many of whom are female – in escaping their homeland for lives in the South, in the UK, USA, and further afield, is testament to the desire to escape the harsh conditions of life in the North. Whilst many find home in Seoul, the South can be a daunting place, as stigmatization of North Koreans by their Southern counterparts is sadly not rare. Yet what unites the two countries together may transcend the political and physical division. We must not forget idea of a unified Korea – Choson, prior to establishment of the Korean Empire in 1897 – in informing our imaginaries of the Peninsula. As both South and North grapple with their own respective societal issues, perhaps it would do well to look back in time, to the once unified Korea, and to seek for ways in which the imagined community of a “Korea” can be rekindled in our understandings of the Peninsula.

For it is not as simple that South Korea is what North Korea is not, nor vice versa, but far more nuanced and complex.




Sea Mothers

With underwater photography by Zena Holloway.

© Zena Holloway

I: Birth

Breath. Knife. Dive. Gum. Pill.

These the first words you lisped, as though the sea needed to mark you, make sure whose you were. Seventeen, you didn’t need the pills for the sickness that eventually grips us all, not yet. Not ever.

You were like an exquisite young fish, wetsuit gleaming like scales, the limits of your lungs untested. A child of the sea. Even to us old-timers, what you were was clear – destined.

I know now the dangers of using a word like “destined.” But then, we only saw how you moved your keen fingers along the jagged rifts, the flash of your sickle, your bright sumbisori whistle as you rose back up to this world.

Beware of bonanzas! An unusually large abalone, an exceptional harvest, can mean only one thing. That day, the same story with you. You collected so much seaweed your friends envied you.

We waited and waited. My entire life passed by on that rocky shore I had walked a thousand times, on the very shore where you, as a baby, had slept in a basket, waiting for the milk from my breasts, milk that tasted of the salty sea, while I shivered in the wind, my hair and cotton mulot dripping.

After the last diver came out and still no sign of you, we thrust our bodies back into the water. We scoured the seabed like ones crazed, finally staggering out into the darkness. The wind whipped us for our empty hands.

It was the next morning you returned to us, on the same waves that had fed and clothed and carried this aging daughter and so many before. Was it then, as you swam in my waters those nine months, that the sea claimed you as its own?

Your orange float nodded at your side, a mute witness to our awful grief, as we untangled the seaweed from your limbs. Who knew you would rise up despite the lead weights? Who knew to look for you on this side of the world?

The winter morning sun lit your motionless body, and you went up in flames, like some mystic bird, rising from the ashes.

 

© Zena Holloway

II: Dance

We dove with coffins on our backs. We witnessed the drownings of our sisters. We toiled in the underworld and returned to this world with rice, alcohol for our husbands, and notebooks and pencils for our children. We offered up our youth.

On the day you were born, I looked at you and vowed: Never the haenyeo life for you.

So I dressed you in a skirt and blazer, put heels on your feet instead of flippers, scrubbed away the stink of brine from your hair and fingers, erased every trace of dialect from your speech.

But now, far away in your glass tower, you tell me of the dangers. You tell me I must stop, that I must consider my age.

My child, we all become white-haired soon enough. But I’m not surprised. Your entire life I taught you to fear these depths. So I don’t ask: If we don’t go, who will? Who knows the sea the way we do? Who will soothe its awesome waves, appease its capricious moods?

Though you would deny it, I know you still dream of water, of its texture against your skin, sometimes as smooth as tofu and at times inky with rage. I know you still hear the sumbisori, the whistle that pierces your dreams, as unforgettable as the taste of sea urchin, served straight from the spiny shell with a spoon.

Across the water, I hear the chorus of whistles go up, like that ancient siren call. This is all I know. This is all I have. I pull the hood over my white hair and adjust my mask. I enter the water. I am young again.

 

© Zena Holloway

 

III: Breath

Don’t be afraid.

A haenyeo can’t be afraid of the waves.

There may be thunder and lightning. There may be poisonous jellyfish, sharks swimming circles above you. There may be eels. There may be spirits that watch your every move, abandoned clothes that chase you away.

Own the breath you were given – it determines how deep and far and long you go. Respect the limits of your lungs: nothing more, nothing less. This isn’t something you can change.

You must master your eyes, for they are greed. And never swallow water-breath. It is the breath we cannot swallow, the breath we must let go.

There will be headaches and back problems. There will be voices that beckon you to where the waters are always warm, where the sea urchins and conch abound. There will be abalone, as big as your hand, that you’ll only see as you come up for air.

Whatever you do, don’t stop. Thirty seconds can mean life or death. But this I promise you: the sky as you emerge from the water – never will you see a sight more beautiful. That is the reason we all dive, for that piece of sky.

Gather only as much as your breath allows. Take what you can carry with your two hands. Pray for safety. Leave the shallow waters for our mothers; one day, when you’re old and wrinkled, you will be the one needing them.

This is what I know: If desire masters you, the sea will become your grave. But if you master desire, the sea will bring you life. Choose life.

 

© Zena Holloway

IV: Guardian

You are the price of our blood, our milk, our marrow, our sweat, our tears.

For you, we would go hungry, jump from a speeding boat, hang seventy feet below in water colder than Siberia, push our breaths to the breaking point – two minutes, five, or even ten. We would wrestle sharks and octopuses and violent winds, travel to the underworld and back. A thousand times over we would offer ourselves, and if we weren’t enough, our grandmothers and mothers and sisters and daughters too. Anything for you, our darling pearl, our bright, precarious seed.

Our future is uncertain. There is talk of decline and extinction, the end of all we know. Our men have left, and our children too. And the sea – our playground, our field, our home! – is turning white. There is no seaweed. There is no conch, no abalone. Just plastic bottles, Styrofoam, and cigarette butts, drifting like memories. Like ghosts. Still, we force ourselves to dive. When we rise to the surface, we are old.

Do not be fooled by these brittle shells. Do not be fooled by our bad backs and bad hips and bad joints. Do not doubt the strength of these bones, calcified by centuries of toil and suffering.

The truth is, apart from this, we have nothing. We have spent it all, with trepidation, with devotion, with grief, with love. Our ancestress’s tears have become the sea; her presence lingers. For there she hangs, weightless, deep in the water, in her thin cotton suit, a fish stopped in mid-swim as though frozen, a woman made into a mermaid, a siren, waiting to be found.

You drift quietly inside our waters, as the world clashes outside. All we can do is hope the sea will be here when you finally wake, that this mother, this husband, this lover, this god will be here still, with its arms open wide for you.

 

Notes

Sea Mothers is a collaborative project between writer Janet Hong and photographer Zena Holloway.

*

“III: Breath” is modelled after Lorna Crozier’s “Packing for the Future: Instructions.”

*

IV: Guardian” borrows from the following:

“Make my blood, my milk, / and my marrow and my tears.” – Gabriela Mistral, “Clearcut: America,Selected Poems by Gabriela Mistral, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin.

“Behind me I feel her presence, my ancestress, my double, turning in midair under the chandelier, in her costume of stars and feathers, a bird stopped in flight, a woman made into an angel, waiting to be found.” – Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid’s Tale.

*

Parts I and II of “Sea Mothers” were first published online in The Margins (Asian American Writers’ Workshop), and parts III and IV in Brick.

 

 

 




The Little Hedgehog

Of all the little hedgehogs in the garden, there was one that they rarely saw. She lived alone by the northern fence. Her home was cold and draughty, and she never seemed to have enough food. The other hedgehogs only ever glimpsed her from afar, shuffling around, bits of dried leaf stuck to her quills. If she caught them looking, she’d raise her tiny chin and cast them haughty looks. She wouldn’t bring herself to ask for help unless she really needed to.

The other hedgehogs kept their distance. Her reclusiveness left her open to all sorts of gossip. And besides, the big cat had said they shouldn’t talk to her.

But one day they noticed spikes at the entrance to her home. To their consternation, no matter how much they squeaked across the garden, she refused to take them down. Instead, she announced that she was sharpening away at her twigs to turn them into even bigger spikes, enough to match the claws of the big cat!

All this made the hedgehogs living closest to her nervous. Especially when the little hedgehog started practicing javelin-throwing, to check her aim (so she wouldn’t spear the wrong animal by mistake), and to prove to the big cat that she was serious.

It should be mentioned that the big cat was also, at this time, engaging in some practice clawing, teaming up with the little hedgehog’s neighbours in close proximity to her house.

“Don’t you dare come near me, you overfed mog!” the little hedgehog would pipe up on such occasions, and the other hedgehogs would hold their breath and swing their gaze from her to the big cat.

The big cat, prowling around the garden, grew increasingly annoyed. “I’m not going to eat you, you little squirt,” the big cat said. “I’ve gone vegetarian. Get rid of your spikes or no nice things for you.”

But the little hedgehog didn’t believe the big cat, and in the dead of night, everyone could hear her sharpening her twigs.

So, under the big cat’s orders, the other hedgehogs dutifully removed all of the berries nearby that the little hedgehog was relying on for food. It didn’t take long as there were only a few around anyway. And they hid away the bits of leaves that she could use to warm her home in the deep, long winter.

“She’s a danger to all of us,” the big cat said. “I’m only punishing her to ensure the peace and harmony of the garden.”

“Stop making spikes,” the other hedgehogs implored. “We feel bad not letting you have any berries.”

But the little hedgehog pursed her lips and glared at them suspiciously. Why did they really want her to have a defenceless home? Some of the others owned spikes, and no one seemed to be picking on them for it. Besides, whenever she did try to play along, they just said she was faking it.

Day by day, the little hedgehog grew thinner and thinner and seemed to shuffle with a deep chill in her bones. But she refused to let down her guard. Whenever she caught scent of the big cat, she’d tense up, ready to curl into a ball. And she hurriedly prepared lots of new barbed insults, to prove that she wasn’t some soft-bellied pushover.

Sometimes, on lonely days, she’d peer in at the homes of her former friends, long empty. When they’d given up their own spikes, the big cat had come and had them for lunch. It had been a grizzly sight, their skeletons strewn across the flowerbeds. There was no way she was going to be the next meal. The big cat was getting hungry again, she was sure of it.

“The little hedgehog is a threat to the safety of everyone,” the big cat said. “For the sake of preserving the peace, I’m going to have to go into her home and pre-emptively scratch her.”

The little hedgehog’s only relative in the garden, a roly-poly brother, perked up in alarm. They’d not been on speaking terms for years, and normally he preferred dancing around and humming tunes to talking about spikes and all that. But the situation was especially grave for him. If a fight broke out between the little hedgehog and the big cat, and if the little hedgehog’s spikes weren’t strong enough to take on such a muscular animal, then he’d be the one to get a spear in the hide instead as a substitute.

He thought about it over many sleepless nights. And the more he thought about it, the more dismayed he became. For it was one thing for siblings to quarrel among themselves, and quite another to see the big cat threatening to scratch his own sister. What would their mother say?

Ashen-faced, the roly-poly brother began to journey across the garden.

“What are you doing? Don’t go there!” the big cat said.

The roly-poly brother pretended not to hear and quickened his pace.

“Don’t think this won’t have consequences!” the big cat said.

The closer that the brother got to his sister’s home, the more he realised how much he had missed her. How affectionately they had played, and how bitterly they had fought, all those years ago.

He moved as quickly as he could. He could not bear to lose another second.

Seeing his small nose snuffling at the entrance, and his eyes, void of judgment, the little hedgehog felt, for the first time in a long, long time, the hard lump in her throat begin to ease.

February 2018.




Unidentified Flying Objects

The first time I had broke into my grandmother’s backyard to smoke menthols and poison her flowers was four months ago, when the Arizona air was still hot with monsoon clouds that rolled in from the west, and the humidity felt like a rash in my throat. Outside it was hard to see past the clouds and make out the planes flying overhead.

My grandmother didn’t know that I came over and sat on the back patio next to the irises, amongst the deep purples, almost blue, the same flowers she used to cut in early spring for all my birthdays. The gate off to the side had a busted lock. Nobody else knew, but I knew, because I was there the day she asked my dad to fix it. And that’s how I got in. I slid the lock off the hook and pushed firmly. The gate budged a little in the gravel and I slipped through like a shadow.

The orchids were dying. The baby pink ones with little blossoms that look dehydrated. I sat on the white plastic lawn chair next to them and sprinkled the ash from my cigarette into the pot and gave it a kick. The whole thing wobbled and shook, almost losing balance, but I didn’t care. I wanted it to fall over, hard onto the concrete patio with a loud crash. I wanted to see sharp pieces of red clay broken and spread amongst the dark soil and white beads of fertilizer, thickening the air with the scent of dirt. But it didn’t fall, and it didn’t crash and I was disappointed at my lack of ability to follow through with anything.

*

I held the cigarette with two fingers, close to my face, and stared at the bright edge that looked like embers. It flicked and danced a pungent orange that turned dull and soft into grey, and before it went out I made sure to press that hot edge to a dying leaf and watched as thin strips of smoke fluttered around the dried kelp like stem. And I wondered if those stems had souls, too. And if I could see the soul as I burned the outer shell, if it would float up, unidentifiable. When the stem failed to catch fire, I twisted the butt against the side of the pot, marking my presence in ash. I wiped my hands down my skirt and over my black knee highs, pushing myself to stand up.

When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to the tower he worked at as an air traffic controller. Overnight shifts meant he worked from 9pm to 5am and sometimes he would take me along for sleepovers, we called them. He would talk to the planes coming in from overseas and they would talk in codes.

“CONTROL to capt, That’s a 10-4, ADT is 2200 hours. Roger that.”

And he let me eat vending machine food for dinner and draw on the plastic boards with military-grade wax pens. We sat on the floor coated in old military carpet, the kind that feels like thick felt pressed together with glue until it’s hard and can scratch your skin raw. We played card games and he quizzed me on planes.

“How can you tell an F-15 in the sky?”

“Two tails,” I said.

“Very good. How about F-16?”

“One. One tail.”

He nodded, and didn’t correct me when I called the vertical stabilizers tails. Because really, you can only expect so much out of an eight-year-old. And I could name every plane I saw, commercial or private, military or civilian.

*

My grandmother’s back patio door was connected to the kitchen and sometimes she forgot lock it. The door handle twisted and cracked, the whole door moved back, allowing me to enter. The screen door crashed behind me as I shut myself in. The house was overcast by the rain clouds and blinds and it made me want to lay down and sleep. Just close my eyes and fall into the black and neon coloured lights. The heaviness, the drowsy, I could hold onto that.

The room smelled like dust and floor cleaner, the kind you get off late-night infomercials – $19.99 guaranteed you’ll love it or you keep it with your money back – where a man looks at your soul through a television screen and sells you exactly what you need to put your life back together.

In the kitchen I found a white box filled with individually wrapped snack cakes tucked into the cabinet. The cakes were pale pink and white, cut into perfect squares. I unwrapped one and let my front teeth sink into the sugary butter cream. My front tooth ached on contact but I kept sucking on the soft yellow cake that melted on my tongue and stuck to the roof of my mouth.

I thought about how I wanted to look, eating pink frosted cake in my black knee highs and mini skirt, how I almost wished I had a lover there to watch me. Gaze at me. I wondered about all the things I would let them do to me there, in my grandmother’s house, amongst the old bone china that hung on the white washed walls and the little magnets of miniature dogs and English flags. She has this thing for English stuff. English teapots. English china. English food. English faces. English blood. It’s too bad mine is a half-Korean face – and blood. Lovers like that though, don’t they? My half-Korean face.

*

I opened the fridge and could smell the olives even when the canister was sealed: pitted olives marinated in what smelled like garlic and sweat, served with blue cheese. I hate blue cheese, the deep veined rot, and green layered cultures that grow and move, the same type of bacteria that makes a foot smell like it’s infected with cancer.

Cancer – the kind that’s silent and unpredictable, starts small in his body, in some insignificant place like an atom, then a blood cell, growing – growing until it is a small mass, dark and lumpy, hidden from sight, but still growing.

When he was first diagnosed, my dad pretended he was fine. He kept saying things like “low risk” or “the doctors are confident.” Three months later when the doctors starting saying things like “serious” or “let’s start looking at all the options,” I started breaking into my grandmother’s backyard.

I took out a cigarette and laid down on the kitchen floor, looked up at the ceiling, and thought about the room caving in on itself. I considered what it would feel like to suffocate, laying down on your back. Suffocating on your back would be like dying from a nosebleed. Lifting your head back to stop the bleeding, only you’re really just drowning in your own blood.

*

And I thought about how one night my dad had come home from an overnight shift and his faced looked different. I had just woken up and was eating my cereal in front of the TV, when he sat down next to me, took my bowl, and had a bite.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi, Daddy,” I replied. I wasn’t interested in talking to him, I was watching cartoons.

“Guess what?” he asked.

“What?” I took my bowl back and stared at the TV.

“Last night, I saw a UFO.”

I dropped my cereal bowl, milk spilling everywhere, and looked at him. He had a strange look on his face like he didn’t know how to explain to me what that meant.

“You saw an alien?” I asked.

“No, I saw a UFO.”

“Yeah, like an alien.”

“No, like an unidentified flying object.” He stood up and made his way to the kitchen to grab paper towels and I followed him, asking every question I could think of.

“But what was it? Like, do you think it was an alien? How do you know? What if it was aliens, do you think they are good? or evil? Do you think you’ll see them again?”

And he just laughed at me.

*

The week after the doctors took him off chemo, my sister and grandma discussed funeral arrangements in the living room. What kind of flowers? What colour should they be, what do the colours represent, and how should they be arranged. I could hear them through the wall, and it made my skin itch. So I crawled out of my bedroom window and walked to the hospital.

When I got there I sat down in the plastic cushioned chair and stared at his face. I asked, “Dad, what’s your favourite kind of flower?” and the question confused him and his mouth went crooked and he nodded his head as if he were agreeing with me. That pissed me off. I asked him again, “Dad, what’s your favourite kind of flower?”

His eyes were large and glassy, almost thick-looking, like a swell, with his mouth contorted in a small smile, almost infantile.

And still I got mad, and I leaned over the side of the bed and grabbed him by his arms and tried to shake him, tried to grab that answer out of him, “What’s your favourite flower?” I pushed harder and harder, trying to move his large-framed body that was lying flat in the sterile white sheets that had just been changed that morning.

Still, he just moaned.

And I screamed, “Tell me. Tell me, now!” until my arm slipped free from the grip and swung backwards, knocking the water jug off the side table, sending it crashing to the floor. Water spread like a wave over my feet and shoes, until finally I let go and walked out of the room without saying goodbye.

I walked to my grandma’s house and tried pushing on the gate, only to find the lock had been replaced by a brand new brass hinge and bolt. I stared at it like it was an equation I needed to solve, to understand. That if I could understand it, then I could undo it. If I could undo it, then everything would be okay. Everything would be fine. When I couldn’t stare anymore, I pushed harder and hit the gate with my fists. Kicked at the wood and threw my shoulder into the panels. The gate stood and I shrunk to the ground with my back against the splintering paint. I took out my cigarette and lit the tip. I inhaled deep and watched the sky, looking for rain. The rain didn’t come but I watched two jets fly side by side, they were sharp and angular, a deep grey, my eyes were hazy and fogged, lines blurred together. I looked, but I couldn’t see how many tails they had.