Two steps to the left or right or back or front and you’re standing outside your life.
|Danny Lyon - Teenagers at Lynch Park in Brooklyn, June 1974|
For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given in to the bottle or the needle or a woman and left my brother and me to care for ourselves—or worse, in the care of New York City Children’s Services, where, my father said, there was seldom a happy ending. But this didn’t happen. I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.I’m too young to be someone’s auntie.
You’re gonna be too old to be somebody’s mama if you don’t get busy. My brother grinned.
No judgment is a lie.
I tried not to think about the return to my father’s apartment alone, the deep relief and fear that came with death. There were clothes to be donated, old food to throw out, pictures to pack away. For what? For whom?
My mother had not believed in friendships among women. She said women weren’t to be trusted. Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tips of your fingernails. She told me to keep my nails long.
But as I watched Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi walk past our window, I was struck with something deeply unfamiliar—a longing to be a part of who they were, to link my own arm with theirs and remain that way. Forever.
Our mother was sad-eyed and long-limbed like my father, with graceful hands that always seemed to be reaching for something or someone. When Clyde died, those hands slowed, lifted away from her body less often, rarely reached for us.
If someone had asked, Are you lonely? I would have said, No. I would have pointed to my brother and said, He’s here. I would have lied even as the empty street on rainy afternoons threatened to swallow me whole. If it was the autumn after Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, and I became inseparable, I would have pulled them close, bending deep into the balm of their laughter.
I stared at the cover of Life. The children’s distrusting eyes stared back at me, too large for their small, brown heads, too small for their protruding bones and distended bellies. My mother hadn’t lied. There were indeed children suffering. Here was proof. Here they were on the cover of Life magazine. I spent hours stroking their nearly bald heads, running my fingers across their almost beatific faces. If angels truly existed, I thought, they had come to earth as Biafran children, haunting and only halfway here.
No, we were not poor like this. Our bellies were filled and taut. Our legs were thin but muscled. Our hair was oiled, clean.
We pretended to believe we could unlock arms and walk the streets alone. But we knew we were lying. There were men inside darkened hallways, around street corners, behind draped windows, waiting to grab us, feel us, unzip their pants to offer us a glimpse.
We had long lost our razor blades and none of us had ever truly stopped chewing on our nails. But still . . .
I watched my brother watch the world, his sharp, too-serious brow furrowing down in both angst and wonder. Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.
Her breasts were heavy beneath the dark dress but she wasn’t a heavy woman. Still, her body seemed to hold promises of curves, of the soft and deep spaces I was just beginning to understand. One day I’d have full breasts, hips, and large hands. One day, my body would tell the world stories beneath the fabric of my clothes.
Who could understand how terrifying and perfect it is to be kissed by a teenage boy? Only your girls, I thought.
Only your girls.
Orba (feminine), the Latin word for orphaned, parentless, childless, widowed. There was a time when I believed there was loss that could not be defined, that language had not caught up to death’s enormity. But it has. Orbus, orba, orbum, orbi, orbae, orborum, orbo, orbis . . .
Jaqueline Woodson - Another Brooklyn (HarperCollins, 2016)