Chiara is a second-year graduate student in the MFA writing program. She is an environmental advocate who loves to watch slow-living videos on YouTube. You can find her reading a book.
By the time I turned eighteen, I knew that my life on Harmony Island would be different because of my mother. Not a day went by that I didn’t hear someone whispering her name, Lena James, like she was an urban legend. Although she was long gone, her presence lingered throughout the island. Especially in the “bottoms,” the poor section of the island where we lived. My mother was from Turkey Hill where the moonjatos — or mulattoes, as Americans called them — lived. She was thrown out when she had me, the “bastard tar baby.” She hated them for what they called me. But she also relished it. She hated the pretense of the Hill, so she ran. Gypsies, she called us. She took us to 227 Hazelnut, the home of TiTi Abellard.
In the bottoms, my mother stuck out like a sore thumb with her olive skin and long, raven hair. She would walk in the tropical sun with her hair skimming the top of her backside. She always wore a signature white lily tucked behind her right ear, so that her hair looked like a potted plant. “I do it for Billy, baby girl,” she would say, dreamily touching her flower. My mother loved Billy Holiday and wanted to be like her. I just wanted to be like my mother.
When I was a little girl, we would sit on the porch together and listen to Billy Holiday records. I would sit with my guava juice and bare feet, and Momma would drag, glassy-eyed, on her joint and sing along. We would sit for hours watching the sun fall asleep behind the hilltops and waiting for Aunt Titi to finish one of her famous island dishes. Titi was a big-boned African, and momma said she looked like me. After my mother left the island, people gossiped that I was probably Titi’s child anyway. The beady-eyed women would look on from their porches as I walked the twelve blocks to and from school. “That’s Lena’s girl and I sure feel sorry for her, having a mother like she did.”
“You sure that’s her mother?” someone would say. “She sure don’t look nothing like her, as dark as she is. Who can tell anyway by the knotty rag she wears to cover that awkward pigeon-toed frame.”
“That’s her, you can tell by the hair. It’s tainted from the white man just like her momma’s was.”
They talked like this every day as if I were invisible — and I wished that I was. They were right about my dresses. Although they weren’t rags, they did drag against the cobblestones when I walked. I wore large, crotched shawls to cover my figure. My long charcoal ringlets, inherited from my mother, were wound in a tight bun on top of my head. Although I loved her, I was nothing like her, and I didn’t want to pretend. I just wanted Love to find me the way I was. But I could tell by their laughter why Love kept missing me.
They called Momma sexy and sassy in the same tone that they called me ugly and awkward. They spread lies about my mother and Aunt Titi with the same confidence that they proclaimed I would never marry. From the time I was old enough to understand night and day until the day of my twenty-first birthday, I wrapped myself in all that they said about me and about my mother. I became their words; I wore them like armor. My face hardly ever felt the rays of the sun because I was too busy looking at the scorpions and snails that scuttled in the sand. I was too busy trying not to appear pigeon-toed and nervous — trying not to appear at all — as I counted the twelve blocks that led me back to 227 Hazelnut Lane and to Aunt Titi. Yet on one particular day, the weight of the words became too heavy on my soul, and I couldn’t seem to pull myself from under the net they cast for me.
“That gal look like a old rusty school teacher.”
“Girl, you too young to be hiding yourself up under that sack the way you do.”
“She’ll never marry, just like her momma. Another funny one.” They sucked their teeth.
“Aww quiet Seale, won’t no man pay no never mind to her in the dark. All the bumps feel the same.”
“You right Pearl, if she got anything from her momma it would be what to do in the dark,” Ms. Seale howled.
I ran. I couldn’t help it. My feet hit the concrete hard and fast. I ran as far as I could toward home. The sound of my breathing echoed in my ears. I burst into the house, pushing past Titi, and threw myself on my bed. No one even knew my name. I was simply Lena’s daughter, and that was a bad thing.
I pulled the picture of my mother from the nightstand. I could feel her spirit laughing and calling out to me as she posed with a long white cigarette holder between her lips. To me, my mother was fire engine red in a sea of black and blue. She had dreams, big ones, that crowded out the people of this island. They couldn’t stand her for it, so they tried to curse me. I went over to my dresser and put on a record, just like my mother used to after a hard day. My mind began to wander back to the nights when I was a little girl, and I would hear my mother and Aunt Titi playing records and laughing late into the night. I would hear their voices whispering through the halls, careful not to wake me. There was no bigger fan of my mother than Titi. Titi was always there when my mother came home late at night with her mascara running or her stockings ripped. She was happy to let my mother stay in her room so that I could have my own. All night my mother would perform for her.
“Nobody sings better than you, Lena. I swear you are a star,” she would cackle. Through my cracked door, I could hear everything. I would hear Aunt Titi’s throaty laugh, the clanking of drinking glasses, and Billy singing through the record player. Sometimes it would get really quiet, and I would hear a sound like crying, and then it would go away.
I pulled out the dark fishnet stockings my mother left on the hardwood in the living room and thought of the last time I saw her. She would always have on a pair of fishnets before she stepped out to the local juke joint with Mr. Daddy. I held them close to me and imagined her sweet scent, like coconuts and honey. More and more I wished I were like my mother with her small waist and welcoming hips. If I had just a small part of that, Love would have found me already. I decided that I would do something radical.
I hopped off my bed and stared at my reflection long and hard. “I love your eyes,” I said, opening and shutting them slowly. I reached up and untied my bun and let my hair fall down past my shoulders. “I love your hair,” I said, changing my tone as I shook it out. I walked over to my bed and stood on top of it, pausing once to turn up the music. I wanted her to see and hear everything. I peeled off my dress, revealing stark white cotton undergarments against velvety ebony skin. My large breasts swooped downward and rested on the top of my rib cage. My thighs looked thick and strong and solid, like my grandmother’s.
“I love my thighs and their color. It’s like the sand turned to mud on the beach.” I ran my hands along every inch of my dark skin as I stared into the mirror. Softly and gently, I kissed every part of me that I could reach. Imagining what love would feel like when it found me. I imagined it tender and slow. I swayed to the music as I imagined Love caressing me from behind. I took off my undergarments and lay down in the cool of my sheets. When Love found me, I would be ready.