IF ONLY I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone. On one side of the glass doors are the long lines of people with their photos and papers that prove that they belong here in America, that they are allowed to taste a bit of this free air. On the other side is me, pressing my forehead against the thick see-through wall. My shoulder hurts from the weight of the carry-on bag. I refuse to put it down for fear that they will take it away, too.
“Manman,” I whisper to the glass, hoping that my voice will ease through, fly above all those people’s heads, travel on a plane back to New York, and reach her.
We had been holding hands for courage when we arrived at Customs in Kennedy Airport. Manman had carried all our important documents in a big yellow envelope tucked into her large purse—our passports, her visa, and the papers to prove that we are who we say we are, that we are from the city of Port-au-Prince; that I am an American citizen by birth and I left for good when I was only an infant; that we own a little house in the neighborhood of Delmas; and that Manman has a business selling brand-name pépé—secondhand American clothes. All these things to prove that we are only visiting relatives and plan to return home to Haiti.
But how could they have read our minds? How could they have known that my mother’s big sister in Detroit had been sending us money to leave Haiti forever? How could they have known that we didn’t plan to go back?
“Ms. Valerie Toussaint, I need you to come with me,” the man had said. His voice was like the pebbled streets in Delmas, rough and unsteady as they pulled Manman’s hand from mine; as they motioned for me to continue through the line with Manman’s desperate pleas trailing behind me—Alé, Fabiola! Go, Fabiola! Don’t worry. I will meet you there!—and as I got on the connecting flight from New York to Detroit. But too much has happened for me to cry now. On the plane ride leaving Port-au-Prince for JFK, I had curled into my mother and together we looked out the window. Up high in the sky, all the problems we had left behind seemed so tiny—as if I could pick them up one by one and fling them out of the universe.
On the flight to Detroit, I am alone. I look down at America—its vastness resembling a huge mountain. I felt as if I was just a pebble in the valley.
My mother will be on the next plane, I tell myself over and over again. Just like when she sends me ahead on my own by foot, or by tap-tap, or by motortaxi. I tell myself that this won’t be any different.
Here in Detroit Metro Airport, there are no long lines to show papers and proof to uniformed people. I ease into America’s free air like a tourist returning home. With every step I take out of the terminal, I look back, and up, and around, as if my mother will appear from out of nowhere. I search for her face in the crowd of new arrivals rushing past me—some with their eyes as weary as mine, others tracking every too-bright light, every movement of each person around them, peering into every corner of this too-big place. But none of them is Manman.
I spot a lady official who is wearing the same uniform as the ones who took my mother away. I take several long steps toward her, dragging the carry-on behind me. My shoulder is sore. “Excuse me, miss? I am looking for Valerie Toussaint coming from New York,” I say with my very best English.
“I’m sorry, young lady. I have no idea who that is. And there isn’t another flight coming in from New York into Detroit till the morning. If you’re waiting for someone to pick you up, follow the signs that read ‘baggage claim,’” she says, and starts to walk away.
I shake my head. “Valerie Toussaint in New York,” I say. “They took her. They say she can’t come to the United States.”
“You had someone with you in New York?”
“Is she being detained?”
I stare and blink and shake my head. I search my brain for this word, trying to find the Creole word for it, or a French one—détenir: to hold back, to keep from moving.
The woman places both hands on her hips. Her blue uniform shirt stretches over her big chest and two buttons look like they will pop. A small black strap on the shoulder of her shirt reads TSA. Her fancy gold badge says she’s an officer and another thinner badge on the other side of her black tie says her name is Deborah Howard.
“I can’t help. You’ve been standing here all this time and your luggage is still at baggage claim. Now, follow the signs to pick up your things. I’m sure you have family waiting for you.” She speaks slowly, as if I am stupid.
I purse my lips and clench my fists. How do I tell her that I am not going to the other side without Manman? How do I say that my mother has not seen her big sister, Matant Majorie, since they were teenagers and Manman wanted nothing more than to hold her face and plant a big wet kiss on her cheek? But the English words don’t come as fast as the many Creole insults at the tip of my tongue for this Deborah Howard.
“All right. Then I will personally escort you to baggage claim,” Deborah Howard says.
“No,” I say. “I have to be with Valerie Toussaint.”
Deborah Howard steps closer to me. At first she smells of her freshly ironed uniform, but then I smell the faint scent of cigarettes and oily food lingering behind her starchy presence. “Look. Just come back with a relative in the morning to straighten all this out. Do you understand what I just said?”
I don’t make a move and I hold this moment for a little bit. Then I nod. “I understand,” I say. My English is not as smooth. “I will come back.”
Our four big suitcases stand alone between two luggage carousels like orphaned children. I want to ask Deborah Howard what Manman will use to brush her teeth and wash her face tonight. But I’m afraid if I give her anything to take to my mother, she will keep it and sell it at the market—if Detroit is anything like Port-au-Prince. Officer Howard grabs a nearby cart and a man helps her lift up the suitcases. I rush toward them to make sure that they don’t take anything.
Night is a starlit blanket outside, and the cold air reaches my bones. I have on a long-sleeved shirt and it is not enough.
“Hope somebody’s bringing you a coat,” the man says, and leaves the cart right there on the sidewalk as I hug myself and rub my arms. I watch the cars pass by.
I look around and then stretch out my arms on each side of me. I pray that Manman will get to taste this cold, free air before she rests her eyes tonight, wherever they are keeping her. And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where there is good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.
THE COLD THREATENS to swallow me whole. Manman said that cold air is better for our skin. It will keep us fresh and youthful. In Haiti, we used to travel to the top of the mountain ranges near Au Cap for their cool winds. But here, I will turn into a block of ice.
America is more colorful than I imagined. The people are a mix of white and not-white. If only Detroit had a bunch of blan, it would be easier for me to pick out a single black woman and three teenage girls, but many of the women look like my aunt with their brown faces; black, shiny straightened hair; and their big, dark coats that hide their shapely figures.
I search the faces of all the people passing me and think of my cousins—the oldest, Chantal, and the twins, Primadonna and Princess, who are my age. And my aunt Marjorie. I have not seen them since I was a baby. How will they recognize me?
I am so hungry and tired. I want a container of hot, sizzling fritay from the streets of Delmas, my mother’s warm, thick arm in mine, and her strong shoulder so I can rest my head.
A girl steps in front of me as I fidget with one of the suitcases. She lifts up her phone to my face.
“Hold up, I’m trying to see if you look like somebody,” she says.
I can only tell she’s a girl by the shape of her body—but her oversized jacket, loose jeans, high-top sneakers, and hat with three bumblebees on it make her almost look like a boy. I examine her round face, her deep-set eyes, and her cheeks. “Princess!” I say.
“Yep. That’s you. Dang! Where you been all this time?” Princess turns and calls behind her, “Yo, I found her! She’s over here!”
I reach to kiss her on the cheek and give her a big hug, but she steps back.
“Nah, I’m good, cuzz. Where’s your moms?”
Another girl runs toward us—Chantal. She’s smaller than Princess, with black-framed glasses—almost twenty years old. Primadonna is behind her—tall with long, flowing hair reaching down to her elbows. She’s wearing sunglasses even though it’s nighttime.
“Fabiola!” Chantal calls.
I reach to hug her because she’s my favorite. Chantal is the one who posts links to articles and sends me messages on Facebook. She’s the one who told her friends how excited she was about her cousin coming from Haiti.
“Where’s Aunt Val?” Chantal asks, looking around and behind me.
I shake my head, unsure of what to say. What if they are mad that my mother didn’t make it through? What if they tell my aunt and she is even angrier?
Primadonna moves closer to me, and I look her up and down to see that she is much taller because of her fancy high heels. She lives up to her name with her diva hair and sunglasses at night.
“Hi, Fabiola,” she sings. Her voice is like a billion tiny bells. “So good to finally meet you. Call me Donna.”
Princess steps in front of me. “And I’m Pri. Not Princess. Just Pri. And big sis over here is Chant.”
Princess and Primadonna, or Pri and Donna now—my twin cousins. Les Marassa Jumeaux, who are as different as hot pepper and honey. Their faces are mirrors of each other, but their bodies are opposites—one tall and skinny and the other short and chunky—as if Princess ruled their mother’s womb and Primadonna was an underfed peasant.
Chantal pushes up her eyeglasses and looks over at the baggage claim. “It’s fine if you call me Chantal. So where is your mom?”
I turn back toward the busyness of the airport. I wonder if my mother is waiting for her flight to Detroit and praying that I don’t worry about her. I wonder if she is still arguing with those uniformed people and if she has thrown those important documents in their faces and cursed their children’s children. Manman will not go quietly. She will fight with her claws to get to me. “She’s not here yet” is all I say.
“How long do we have to wait for her? We didn’t pay for parking,” Chantal says. I feel like she’s looking straight through me.
“Well.” I pause. “They said she’s being detained in New York.”
“Detained? What? She wasn’t on the plane with you?” Donna asks.
My face goes hot. “From Haiti, yes. But when we got to Customs,” I start to say, but my voice cracks. “They took her into a room. But maybe she will be on the next plane?”
“Shit! We thought that might happen,” Pri says.
“Shut up, Pri. Don’t scare her,” Donna says. She pulls Pri aside and takes out her cell phone. “I’m calling Ma.”
Chantal shakes her head, then turns to me. “This doesn’t sound right, Fabiola,” she says as she grabs my hand and pulls me back inside. We wait in line for a long time at the Delta Air Lines counter before finally reaching the man at the desk. “Hello, sir? We’re looking for a passenger who might be on the next flight from New York.”
Chantal’s English is like that of the newspeople on TV. Her voice is high and soft, and every sentence sounds like a question, even when she gives them my name and my mother’s name. It’s as if she isn’t sure of anything and this uniformed man behind the desk and the computer will have all the answers in the universe.
I spell out Manman’s name for Chantal, who then spells it out for the man behind the counter. He prints Chantal a piece of paper and she steps off to the side. I follow her as she starts searching her phone for answers.
“What’s your mother’s birthday?”
I tell her. Then she asks if my mother has a middle name. I tell her that, too. She shakes her head. Chantal shows me her phone.
My mother’s name is on the screen. All the other words and numbers I don’t understand.
“Fabiola, your mother’s going to be sent to an immigration detention center in New Jersey. She’s not coming to Detroit,” Chantal says. She pauses and the corners of her mouth turn down. “They’re planning on sending her back to Haiti.”
I can see Pri and Donna watching me from a few feet away. Donna has hung up the phone. Her brows are furrowed and she bites her bottom lip. The same look is on Pri’s face.
I am quiet. Then I say, “What?”
She repeats what she said, but I only hear sending her back to Haiti over and over again.
If there were no blood vessels, no rib cage, no muscles holding up my heart to where it beats in my chest, it would’ve fallen out onto the floor.
I set my mother’s carry-on down on the floor. “If New Jersey is still in the United States, then we can go get her. We can explain everything and show them that her papers are good,” I say. My voice trembles.
Chantal shakes her head and puts her hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know if that’s how it works, Fabiola.”
Chantal steps away from me and talks to her sisters with her arms crossed. Her face looks as if she is carrying the weight of all our problems on her head. We make eye contact and she smiles a little. She comes over and takes my hand. “Come on, cuzz. Let’s go home.”
I don’t move.
I remember all those times in Port-au-Prince, standing in the open market or at an intersection waiting for my mother as the sun went down and it started to get dark and she still didn’t arrive. Even as the busy streets of Delmas began to empty out and no one but vagabon and MINUSTAH troops passed by on motorbikes and trucks, I waited.
And she always came. She’s never left me alone.
“Donna just spoke to Ma. She wants us to bring you home.”
She tugs at my arm, but still, I don’t move.
“Fabiola, my mother is gonna handle it, all right? She’s the one who sent for you both in the first place. She’ll make a few phone calls, and before you know it, your mom will be here.” Chantal’s voice is candy—sweet but firm.
She takes off her thick, long scarf and wraps it around my shoulders—a gesture that only my mother has ever done for me. Back in Haiti, it was always just me and Manman. But now, my world has ballooned and in it are these three cousins, and my aunt, too. Family takes care of each other, I tell myself. We will get my manman.
We leave the airport. It feels like I’m leaving part of me behind—a leg, an arm. My whole heart.
DARKNESS SEEPS INTO every crack and corner of this Detroit. Even with a few lampposts dotting the streets, I can’t see the breadth and depth of this city that is my birthplace, that is now my home. I squint to see if the big mansions I’ve seen on American TV will glow or sparkle in the dark. I hope to catch a glimpse of the very tops of the tall buildings, but the car is moving too fast—with its fancy seats, too-loud music, and the scent of shiny new things.
Chantal sits so close to the steering wheel, her small body enveloped by the leather seat, her hands steady. Donna sits in the passenger seat and she keeps checking her reflection in the rearview mirror, the sun visor mirror, and her phone. She pulls out a big brush from her bag and brushes the ends of her long hair. Pri is next to me in the back and turns on her phone to stare at the screen. Everything is quiet, tense, until Chantal changes the music and turns the volume up really loud. The car sways a little because Pri starts to dance as she says, “Aww shit! Yo, turn that shit up some more, Chant!”
The bass reaches my insides, but it’s not enough to shake the thought of my mother from my mind. I lean my forehead against the backseat window and try to see past the speeding dark and into this new world called Detroit. I try to take it all in, even the heavy music, so I can save every bit for my mother. I remind myself to smile, because finally I am here on this side of the good life.
We pull onto a smaller street and park at the corner. Chantal turns the music off and the car is still. I stare out the window. There are no mansions or big buildings here. The small houses are so close together, they might as well be holding hands.
Donna helps me out of the car. “Welcome home, Fabiola!” she sings.
The front door to a small white house swings open. There are a few steps and a narrow porch leading up to that door. I want nothing more than to rush in to let the house’s warmth wrap around my cold body. A dimly lit lamp shines a light on the person standing at the door, and I recognize the face. It’s like Manman’s, but rounder and thicker. They have the same deep-set eyes, the same thick eyebrows that will never go away, no matter how many times they wax or pluck them. But she doesn’t smile like my mother always does. Half her face barely moves, frozen from her stroke. Manman was supposed to be here taking care of that face.
She is fatter than Manman, but her clothes are smaller and tighter and shorter. Wait till my mother sees her big sister dressed like a teenager at a Sweet Micky concert, oh!
Matant Jo last saw me in person when I was a tiny baby, and since then only through Facebook photos. My aunt comes toward me, arms extended wide. She hugs me tight and I breathe in her smell. My mother has been the only family I’ve known my whole life, and here, in my aunt’s arms, my world feels bigger, warmer.
When Matant Jo lets go, she says, “Valerie was supposed to be here. So what happened, eh?” I recognize her deep voice from all those long-distance phone calls with the 313 number. Manman said that Matant Jo used to have the sweetest birdsong voice—so sweet that she could make a man fall in love with her just by offering him a glass of water.
“Matant, they said they are detaining her,” I say.
“They’re sending her to New Jersey. They’re not gonna let her in,” Chantal adds as she takes off her boots by the door.
“But she’s already in,” Donna says. She sits on the arm of the living-room couch and slides off her coat. “Why would they send her to a whole other state just to send her back to Haiti, Ma?”
“Yeah, Ma, that’s fucked up.” Pri drags my bags to the bottom of the stairs, then lifts one onto the first few steps. “So trying to come to America from the wrong country is a crime?”
My aunt looks at my four big suitcases and her face falls. Then she inhales deep and only one shoulder raises up to meet her breath. She shakes her head as if she’s already given up.
“I will try, but . . . ,” she starts to say. “These things, Fabiola . . . they are so complicated, yes?”
“Matant Jo, n’ap jwen yon fason,” I say in Creole. “We will find a way.”
“English, please.” She stops to stare at me. “I hope your mother really sent you to that English-speaking school I paid all that money for.”
“Yes, and I had one more year to graduate. Thank you.”
“Good. Leave your mother to me. In the meantime, you will finish your junior year with Pri and Donna, okay?” she says. A bit of Haiti is peppered in her English words—the accent has not completely disappeared.
“English!” she yells, and I jump.
Pri laughs while coming back down the stairs. “Ma, don’t be so hard on her. You finally got the little good girl you prayed for. She looks like she’s on that straight and narrow.”
“I thought I was your good girl?” Chantal whines.
“You?” Matant Jo laughs. “You were my only hope. You think it was my dream for you to end up at community college? All those good grades? That big SAT score, and Wayne County Community College is all you have to show for it?”
“Here we go again,” Pri mumbles as she comes to stand next to me.
Chantal sighs. “Who would’ve been driving you around, Ma, if I went away to college? Who would’ve been looking out for Pri and Donna if I left?” she says.
Chantal looks smaller without her coat. Her frame is more like mine, with her broad chest and thin legs. Everything she’s said sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders. I decide then and there that we will be the second set of twins in this family. I will pay attention to what she does and how she talks. She smiles when she sees me staring at her.
Matant Jo sucks her teeth long and hard. She pulls me toward her and removes Chantal’s scarf from around my shoulders. “Don’t concern yourself with my crazy daughters. Come on, girl. You must be hungry.”
“Wi, Matant,” I say again, but try to swallow my words. It’s habit. She’s never said anything to me over the phone about speaking only in English.
“You are going to have to pay me each time you speak a word of Creole in this house.”
“Aunt Jo. Say it just like that. Let the words slide out and don’t be so uptight about it. It’s just English, not too complicated.”
I follow her into the kitchen as my cousins settle on the couches and someone turns on the big TV. The living room of this house, my new home, is a sea of beige leather. The furniture crowds the small space as if every inch of it is meant for sitting. I’ve seen bigger salons in the mansions atop the hills of Petionville, even fancier furniture and wider flat-screen TVs. But none of that belonged to me and my mother; none of the owners were family. Here, I can sit on the leather couches for as long as I want and watch all the movies in the world as if I’m at the cinema.
My aunt uses a cane to get from the living room to a narrow archway leading to the kitchen. The cabinets are a nice cherry-red color; the refrigerator and stove are a shiny silver, like the moonlight. The green numbers on the stove say it’s now ten thirty at night. Matant Jo opens a cabinet, pulls out several small bottles of pills, puts them into the pocket of her short dress. The left side of her body droops and her dress slides off her shoulder.
“Are you feeling okay, Aunt?” I ask, making my voice as small as the eye of a needle.
She sighs and tries her best to stand upright. “Here they call it a stroke, but your mother would’ve said that the Gédé were pulling me into Ginen. Death owns half of me, Fabiola.”
“Don’t say that, Matant. I mean, Aunt.”
“It’s true. I’m sure your mother has taught you some things over the years, right? So, here is the fridge, the stove, some pots and pans. Make yourself at home. This is the house your uncle Phillip bought with his hard-earned money. This is the house your cousins were raised in. And now, I am so happy to share it with you.”
She doesn’t smile when she says this, and her words are as dry as cassava bread. Those words were meant for my mother, not for me. I pull out a seat from the table. But my aunt doesn’t join me. She yawns, scratches her head, rubs her left shoulder, rolls her neck, and disappears into another room right next to the kitchen. I wait for her to come back, but she doesn’t.
My cousins are laughing and talking among themselves in the living room. Again, there is loud music, but it comes from the TV. I don’t want to be a burden to them, but I have no idea what to do in this kitchen. Suddenly, I feel so alone in this house. I am surrounded by family, but none of them really knows me or understands what happened to me today. My heart begins to ache for my mother. How could my aunt just leave me here in the kitchen—is this how you treat family in America? There is no celebration for my arrival, no meal is cooked, no neighbors are invited to welcome me, not even a glass of cool water is on the table for me to drink after such a long trip.
If my mother were here, she would quickly start gathering ingredients to make me a meal, to make everyone a meal.
I open the fridge to find bottles of soda and ketchup and hot sauce and mayonnaise and bread and eggs and too many plastic containers. In the freezer are boxes of pizza and waffles and frozen meat wrapped in plastic. My stomach is so empty, it’s touching my back now. I grab a slice of orange cheese wrapped in plastic.
I jump as Pri comes into the kitchen. She’s changed into what looks like her sleep clothes—a too-big T-shirt and sweatpants.
“Come upstairs, Fabiola,” she says, motioning for me to follow her. She’s holding my mother’s carry-on that I’d left by the front door. “Big day tomorrow—high school! In America! I hope you been practicing your mean mug in case you run up into some east side girls. And make sure you look ’em dead in the eye, ’cause you reppin’ the west side now. Don’t show weakness, a’ight, cuzz?”
My stomach twists at the thought of one more new experience. As I follow her, I stuff the slice of cheese into my mouth, and I can’t believe that this is the very first thing I eat in America. It tastes like a mix of glue, chalk, and salt.
Chantal greets me at the top of the stairs as Pri sets down the bag and goes into a small bedroom. Three doors line a narrow hallway, and Chantal points to one of them. “We’re sharing a room. I don’t mind.” She motions toward Pri’s closed door with a poster of a crown and scepter crossing each other. “That’s the twins’ room.”
She points to another closed door. “And that’s the bathroom. Now listen.” She turns to face me. Her glasses are at the tip of her nose and she looks up at me over the rim. “You gotta be really smart and fast about how you use this bathroom, okay?”
“Donna is in there now, and if you gotta pee and she’s putting on her makeup or her wigs or whatever, you have to move to plan B. She locks the door and takes hours with her fake face and her fake hair. Ma probably won’t let you use her bathroom downstairs. She used to beat our asses for fighting over the bathroom, and she banned us from using hers, especially after she got that Jacuzzi put in. Have you ever been in a Jacuzzi?”
I scan my memory for the English word Jacuzzi.
“Wait a minute. In Haiti, were you using a bathroom that’s inside the house, or outside the house?”
I bite my lip trying to figure out which story to tell her. “Both, depending on whether or not there was electricity,” I say. “It’s complicated.”
“Complicated? What’s so complicated about toilets? That’s a basic necessity. Ma told us how she grew up squatting over the . . . what do you call those? Latrines. Yeah. The latrines were always in the back of the house. You mean to tell me y’all still have latrines?”
A loud bang comes from Pri and Donna’s bedroom and makes us jump.
“Would you two please stop talking about shit. That’s nasty. I’m trying to sleep!” Pri yells from behind the closed door.
Chantal steps over and bangs back. “We’re not talking about shit; we’re talking about basic human necessities!”
Donna pokes her head out from the bathroom. “You know what’s nasty, Pri?” she shouts. “Not washing your ass before you go to sleep, smelling like a tuna sandwich. Don’t stink up my room with your tuna sandwich ass!” She shuts the door.
“Ey, ey, ey!” Matant Jo’s powerful voice booms up the stairs. “Watch your mouths! You have a guest. Go to bed!”
Everything quiets for a short moment. Then Chantal laughs. “Look at your face. You’re probably, like, ‘What did I just walk into?’”
I smile a little as she leads me to her bedroom. It’s warm and neat, like Chantal. When she turns on the light, the first thing to greet me are the shelves and shelves of books and more books. I want to stop and hug her and give her a big kiss on the cheek. With this many books I can make this place my home. I set my mother’s carry-on bag down on the soft beige carpet. An air mattress lies on the floor next to her neatly made bed, which is covered with a purple blanket and too many pillows. I wonder if my mother would’ve slept with her sister downstairs, and think about where she’s sleeping instead tonight.
Donna comes out of the bathroom and stands in Chantal’s doorway. She’s still dressed, and it looks as if she’s put on even more makeup.
“Donna, really? You’re going out now?” Chantal says.
“Just for, like, a couple of hours. . . . Driving around, that’s all.”
“That’s not true, Donna. He’s taking you all the way out to Belle Isle, isn’t he?”
“No. We’re just driving around. Maybe get something to eat at a Coney Island. That’s all.”
“Donna, please. Don’t get in Dray’s car while he’s racing,” Chantal says.
I unzip one of my suitcases and pretend not to listen, but I can’t help wonder who this Dray is. Chantal is almost begging Donna not to go out.
“Dray’s not gonna be racing,” Donna promises. “And he don’t like me in his car when he does anyway. He says I give him bad luck.”
Chantal presses her hands to her forehead as if to say that Donna is not using her head. “And you don’t see that as disrespectful? He’s your man, but he thinks you give him bad luck? Whatever, Donna. You already made up your mind. But I’m sick of this shit.”
Donna doesn’t say anything, but I can see hurt flash across her face, like a strike of lightning. It’s gone in an instant, hidden behind her layers of makeup and hair. The bedroom door closes and I can barely hear her footsteps going down the stairs. The sound of a car’s engine filters in through the window.
“You won’t be sneaking out of the house to meet up with your shitty boyfriend, right?” Chantal asks.
I turn to her, wide-eyed. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“I didn’t think so. And don’t get caught up in Donna and her boyfriend’s shit. ’Cause he will try to holla at you. He ain’t shit.”
She is talking to me and not talking to me at the same time. I only listen and don’t give her any response. As she climbs into bed, I open the suitcase with my mother’s clothes. I pull out one of her nightgowns to wear. Hopefully, this little bit of a connection will help ease her through to this side.
“Hey,” Chantal says from her bed. “I’m sorry about your mom. I wish she was here, too. Ma was saying how she was gonna be cooking and cracking jokes. Don’t worry. We’ll figure everything out.”
I hold on to the hope in her words.
As Chantal turns off the light, I crawl onto the air mattress. It feels like clouds beneath my body. I pray for sleep to come soon, for Manman on the other side, and for Donna, who is racing out into the night with her boyfriend.
At one thirty in the morning, my eyes are burning and my stomach cries from hunger. I have not slept well since Thursday. This past week, my friends threw me a big party in our school’s yard. It had been too late for us to return home, so we all spent the night sleeping on the hard concrete classroom floors. We had so much fun joking and giggling. The next few days were spent packing and giving away extra clothes and saying no to everyone who asked me to squeeze this or that into my suitcase for a loved one in Miami or Boston or New York.
We made jokes about how to pronounce Detroit. Deux-trois. Two-three. And Michigan rhymes with Léogâne, the town, Mee-shee-GAN. Except Americans don’t say it that way. In the dark, I practice whispering “Dee-troit” and trying to get my mouth to wrap around the word just right.
Quietly, I slide off the air mattress. I need to light a candle for my mother so she can find her way back to me, but I realize I don’t have matches in my bag. I tiptoe down the dark stairs to search for some.
A small lightbulb is plugged into a socket in the kitchen. The green numbers on the stove say it’s now two in the morning. I open up all the drawers until I find a lighter instead, pocketing it in my mother’s nightgown.
A man’s voice slices through the darkness. He’s singing. It’s coming from outside. I move to the living-room window and I can hear the words to his song, something about dancing in the streets. It’s an old catchy tune—like an American commercial. I tug apart the heavy curtains.
Again, the singing. Louder now, more joyful.
Across the street, a single lamppost shines on an empty weed-infested lot. Sitting on what looks like an overturned plastic bucket is an old man with a hat. He throws his head back and sings the last verse to his song:
Welcome to the D!
City of the Dead.
Welcome to the D!
Oh, don’t let those
Hungry ghosts wake
Your little sleepy head.
He finishes out his tune with a low, guttural hum just as the deep, pounding bass of a revved car engine overrides his voice. A white car zooms around the corner and comes to a screeching stop right in front of the house.
The singing man stands up from his bucket and braces himself to sing the chorus as loud as he can.
Welcome to the D!
Better pack your lead.
Welcome to the D!
Oh, don’t let that
Greedy dope boy
Get all up in your head.
At that same moment, a man comes out of the driver’s side and takes long, deliberate steps toward the corner.
“Shut the fuck up, Bad Leg!” the man shouts, loud and crisp.
He reaches the singing man, grabs the collar of the old man’s dirty coat, and punches him until his body is limp. The punching man lets go and Bad Leg falls to the ground—his body like an empty potato sack.
“Mind your own fucking business, old man!” the punching man shouts. He kicks him one last time before returning to the car with his fists still clenched. I can’t see his face in the dim streetlight.
I shrink away from the window. I want to unsee and unhear everything. My heart is racing and there’s not enough air where I’m standing. Bad Leg is still on the ground, rolling from side to side. I’ve seen this before—old people in Delmas who see and say too much are often beaten up or killed by young vagabon who have no respect for elders, for life, or for themselves.
A second man comes out from the backseat of the car—younger, slim, and wearing a blue cap. “Yo, Dray, chill!” He runs to Bad Leg to help him up.
The punching man, Dray, calls out to his friend, “Yo, get the fuck away from him!”
But the blue-cap man ignores Dray and tries to help Bad Leg to his feet. He reaches down to pick up the cane, hands it to him, and makes sure the old man is stable before walking back to the car.
At the same moment, the passenger-side door opens, and I recognize those boots and that long coat. Donna stumbles out. Her long hair hangs over her face and she can barely stand up straight. She takes several clumsy steps toward the house and I quickly close the curtains. I let the dark living room be my hiding place as the front door unlocks and Donna steps in, removes her boots, and slowly makes her way up the stairs, leaving the strong scent of alcohol behind her. Her bedroom door lightly clicks shut.
I wait a few minutes before I come out of my hiding place. I replay everything until it all blurs into a dream. I want to tell Manman what I just saw and tell her that we have to go back. This corner where Matant Jo lives is no different from some of the streets in Delmas. I need to light her candles and hope that I can reach her.
Upstairs, I find a near-empty shelf in Chantal’s room, move the books aside, and start taking my mother’s things out of her carry-on bag: a small statue of La Sainte Vierge, two tea candles, the beaded asson gourd, a small brass bell, a white enamel mug, a cross, and a piece of white fabric. I bring the cloth up to my face and inhale the fragrance. I washed it by hand and soaked it in Florida water before we left. It smells of Manman’s magic—our lwas, our songs, our prayers.
I move the magic things aside to dust off the shelf with my hand. I place the cloth down first, the cross in the center, then the other items around it. I add water from the bathroom sink into the mug. I’m now only missing a potted plant for the libation. I light a candle. It hisses in the dark. Chantal turns over, but a pillow covers her face.
I call my spirit guides to bend the time and space between where I’m standing and wherever my mother is. Maybe everything is happening for a reason. Maybe this was the wrong thing to do. Maybe we should go back. What would Manman say? I need to know.
For all my life, you’ve taught me so much about how there is power and magic in our lwas, in our songs, and in our prayers. Now, for the first time in my life, I get to test the truth of your words. This is the first night I’ve spent away from you and I can’t even conjure an image in my mind of where you must be.
Remember that trip to Jacmel last year when we stayed at a friend’s house and you insisted that we share a mattress made for a crib? You pulled me in close and reminded me that even with my almost-woman body, I am still your one and only baby. Both our feet hung off the edge of the mattress and touched the cool concrete floor, and we prayed that a little mouse or a big spider would not eat our toes. I’m sleeping on an air mattress now and there’s plush beige carpeting underneath.
When I stared into the tiny flickering flame of the tea candle tonight, an image of you and where you are finally surfaced in my mind. You told me to trust every vision, every tingling of my skin, every ringing in my ear, every itch in my palms. They’re all signs. They’re all the language of the lwas.
But I’ve heard no whispers since the moment you were pulled away from me. How could the lwas not have given us a sign that this would happen, Manman? Were we too blinded and distracted by the excitement? This vision of you now is the only thing I have to hold.
I can see you. You’re on a bed on top of another bed. And a thin layer of itchy fabric is barely enough to cover your body. It’s your first night, but you’ve made some friends—two men and one woman. And they are black, black like you—black as if they’ve sat in the hot midday sun for most of their lives selling any- and everything they could find just to make enough money to buy a plane ticket out of that hot sun. They’re from Senegal, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire, because they speak a broken French just like you.
Matant Jo doesn’t let me speak French or Creole. When you come to this side, Manman, we will speak nothing but Creole. It will help me hold on to a piece of home.
Kenbe fem, Manman. Hold tight.
I TURN ON the bathroom-sink faucet and let the cold water wash over my hand. In Port-au-Prince, we had a well in the front yard. By this time, I would’ve had to wash and rinse out the bucket from the bathroom to bring it outside and pull clean water up from the well. Then I’d have to carry it back into the house and pour the well water into the tub for my bath. I can balance a bucket on top of my head, too. But I won’t let my cousins see that.
“You saw that? I thought you were asleep,” I say. I’m already dressed, wearing one of Donna’s uniforms: a gray skirt, a plain button-down white shirt, and a navy V-neck sweater. I want to go see my mother at the detention center in New Jersey. But I’m going to school. School in America. Finally. Manman had insisted that we arrive on a weekend so that I could start school the following Monday. She didn’t want me to miss a day of this real American education.
“You woke me up whispering to that statue and cross. Then I saw you take the mug and spin around. What were you doing?”
“Saluting the four directions—east, west, north, and south. It’s for Papa Legba. Are we going to New Jersey after school?”
“Fabiola, I’m sorry. New Jersey’s ten hours away.” She pulls a thick sweater down over her head. “My mother is handling it right now, and you don’t even know it. And who is Papa Legba?”
“He is the lwa of crossroads. When there’s no way, Papa Legba will make a way. He opens doors and unlocks gates,” I say. “I have to pray to him so he can help my mother come to this side.”
Donna barges into the bedroom. “Chant, you got an extra pair of tights?” Her black lace bra pushes her breasts up so high that they almost touch her chin.
I search her eyes for any hint of what happened last night, but they’re bright, as if she’s had a good night’s sleep. But I know for sure that she just about fell out of that white car.
Pri comes in behind her. “Yo, Fab? You know how to braid?”
I nod and try hard not to stare at the white fabric wrapped around Pri’s chest. It presses her breasts down against her rib cage until she looks like a box. The François and Toussaint women are busty. It should force us to only straighten our backs and walk with our heads held high. But one twin wears her breasts like a trophy, while the other tries to make them disappear.
“Donna, I’ve never seen those clothes before. You’re seriously gonna wear lace thongs and a push-up bra to school?” Chantal steps closer to her. “Did you just buy those with money that you don’t have?” she says through clenched teeth.
“Chant, chill. There’s plenty of money to go around—we’ll make it work,” Donna says, tightening the straps of her new bra.
“If she went shopping, then I’m going shopping,” Pri says.
“Y’all are out of control. For real. As far as I’m concerned, there is no money. Fab needs clothes and school supplies,” Chantal says, pointing to me, then at her sisters. “And you already know what’s happening to the rest of it.”
“Why are you the only one who gets to decide how we spend our money?” Pri whines.
“’Cause I’m responsible, that’s why,” Chantal says. “And we have a deal.”
Both Pri and Donna start arguing with Chantal. They yell and put their hands in her face. Chantal does the same; she doesn’t back down. I can’t make out the words, their reasons or logic. All I know is that there is enough money in this house for three sisters to fight over it.
“What do you want for breakfast?” I ask, trying to stop the fight. But they don’t listen to me.
Quietly, I head downstairs.
There are only eggs and sliced bread. There are no plantains and avocados to make a complete Haitian breakfast. My first meal in America is one that I make for myself and eat by myself. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come.
There are footsteps upstairs. A door slams. A toilet flushes. A faucet runs. A door slams again. Then, nothing.
After washing the dishes, I fidget with the remote in the living room. Then I hear voices and cars outside. I pull back the curtains and this little slice of Detroit opens up to me—an empty paved road and small houses with only a narrow space separating one from the other.
On the opposite corner, at the edge of the lot, is a wide and short building whose graffiti-covered wall faces our house. Above it is a sign that reads LIQUOR BEER WINE PIZZA CHECK CASHING. At the other corner is a smaller building with a sign that reads HOUSE OF GOD. I stare at the liquor place, then the God place, and back.
I see the signpost at the corner, right in front of our house: American Street and Joy Road.
At the other end of the block is a house that has wooden slats for windows. It reminds me of the abandoned new houses in Port-au-Prince, where the owner had enough money to build them but not enough money to put in windows and doors. It looks like a tomb made for djab—angry spirits that haunt the night.
Farther to the right are vacant spaces where houses should be. They make gaping holes on the block, like missing teeth.
A few more cars start to drive down the block. The world here is awake. Manman is awake, too, for sure.
Finally, someone comes down the stairs. Pri. “Can you please braid my hair?” she asks, wearing a pair of baggy khaki pants. Her white shirt is buttoned all the way up to her neck and hangs loose over her shoulders.
I sit on the couch and she sits on a floor pillow in front of me while the news is on the TV. Donna walks by with her hair even longer than before. Her lips are redder and her eyelashes are longer, too. I contemplate asking to switch uniform skirts with her since hers is too short and mine is so long. “Is she going to a club after school?” I ask Pri.
“No. She just dresses like a ho. And I’m the only one who can call her that, you hear?”
I nod but she can’t see me.
Chantal comes down the stairs while looking at her phone. “Y’all got ten minutes, ’cause first class is at eight. Whoever’s not done, I’m leaving behind. Fabiola gets a pass ’cause I have to get her registered. But the two of you are just gonna have to take the bus.”
“For real, Chant?” Pri says. “You gonna make your little sisters take the Livernois bus when that new ride is supposed to be for everybody? And by the time that shitty bus comes, school will be over.”
“If y’all don’t hurry up!” Chantal calls back.
I wonder how Matant Jo gets to work since Chantal’s car is the only car I’ve seen parked in front of the house. So I ask, “When is Aunt Jo going to work?”
“Work?” they both say together.
“Ma is working right now,” Pri says.
“Yep. She’s working on getting your mother out of that detention center,” Chantal adds. “And she certainly worked to get you over here from Haiti, didn’t she?”
I nod again and promise myself not to ask about Matant Jo’s work again, unless it is the work of getting my mother home.
Pri pulls away from me when I’m done braiding her hair. She stands up to check it out in a nearby mirror. “Nah. Do that shit over again. I just need six regular braids going back,” she says, taking out the two I braided on each side of her head.
“But they look nice,” I say.
“Don’t make them look nice—just make them look . . . regular.”
She comes back to sit on the floor in front of me.
“I hope y’all are ready,” Chantal calls out.
“We are going to be late if I braid your hair again,” I say.
“Just hurry up. Don’t make them all puffy. I need them tight.”
Donna examines Princess’s braids from afar. “In other words, she needs them to look like a dude’s,” she says.
“Shut up, D,” Pri says.
“Is that true? Make them look like a boy’s?” I ask.
“Just make them tight, Fabiola, and hurry up.”
“Why do you want to look like a boy?” I start by pulling the soft hairs at her scalp very tight.
“Are you serious right now? I’m not trying to look like nobody but Pri. Feel me?”
I glance down at her khaki pants. “You don’t have to wear a uniform skirt to school like me and Donna?”
“It’s cold as fuck outside. If y’all wanna wear them short-ass skirts, then that’s on y’all,” she says.
Pri’s mouth is so dirty. Since my mother isn’t here, I want to grab her little lips and twist them myself. I take my time with each braid even though Chantal has come down and is ready to leave. I want Pri to like them. I need her to like me. I’m happy to have been helpful after being here for only a few hours.
Pri leans her head on my knee and it feels like I’ve been here for years instead of hours—as if I’d never left in the first place. Whenever my aunt and cousins would call Haiti, I’d imagine my life as an American—living in a house full of family, going to school, having a car and a boyfriend. I shake the memory of last night from my mind—the singing man, the punching man, the saving blue-cap man, and Donna.
“I remember when we were little, you used to be the most talkative one on the phone,” I say to Pri. “You would always ask to speak to me and you would tell me all about school and your friends. Remember when you said you didn’t want Donna to be your twin, you wanted me to be your twin instead, and you said you were going to take the bus to Haiti?”
“Yeah, well, I’m all grown-up now, and so are you” is all she says. Then she lifts up her head and turns toward the TV.
Chantal is by the front door and starts to put on her coat, but the noise from the TV makes her stop. She glances in our direction, and Pri slowly pulls away from me. Donna comes over to stand near the TV. Pri reaches for the remote on the carpet and turns up the volume.
“. . . A seventeen year-old University Liggett High School student died last week of an alleged lethal cocktail of designer drugs. Locals are now saying there have been a string of parties over the last few months where the synthetic designer drugs were made available to partygoers as young as thirteen. Police have been in contact with members of the community and have opened an investigation.”
Chantal, Donna, and Pri exchange deep, quiet stares as if aiming sharp knives at one another.
Pri inhales and rubs her chin. “The fuck? They still going with this story?” she says. “One white chick OD’s and there’s an investigation? She did that shit to herself.”
“Sandra McNeil actually got killed last month and it didn’t even make the news,” Chantal says.
“Did you know that white girl, Chant?” Donna asks.
“She would’ve been a freshman when I was a senior. I definitely don’t think we were in the same circles.”
The news then shifts to a report on drug cocktails and what they do to you when you take them. I’m glued to this bit of interesting information but Chantal shuts off the TV. “We’re running late. Don’t pay attention to that shit, Fabiola.”
“I’m not done with my hair!” Pri whines.
She wants six braids and I’m only on the second.
“Fuck it,” she says, and gets up from the floor. In a few minutes we’re all out of the house and in the car. Matant Jo has not come out of her room.
I’m wearing a coat that used to belong to Chantal. I can’t figure out the zipper and all the buttons, but Pri helps me. She then takes off her hat, leans in closer to me, and hands me a comb. I still have to finish her braids.
“I hope you’re not trying to make her your little slave,” Donna says. She’s in the mirror again. “Fabiola, you don’t have to do what Pri says. This ain’t Haiti.”
“Hold up. It’s on her if she wants to cook and braid hair. Ain’t nobody forcing her to do shit. Right, cuzz?” Pri says.
I laugh a little. “Even in Haiti, I didn’t do everything that people told me to do.”
“Didn’t Ma and Aunt Val work as slaves when they were in Haiti?” Pri asks.
“No, dumb-ass. No one can work as a slave,” Chantal says.
I remember those stories from Manman, too. “Restavec,” I say. “They were not slaves, really.”
“Well, did they work?” Pri asks.
“Yes, they worked.”
“Did they get paid?”
“No, but . . .”
“So they worked as slaves.”
Both Chantal and Donna start arguing with Pri while laughing at the same time. This isn’t like the argument about money—there are more jokes and light insults. I laugh a little, too, because this moment reminds me of being with my friends back in Haiti. I can’t make a straight part in Pri’s hair because she and the car are moving so much. I pull her in closer and I can feel the weight of her upper body leaning on me completely. She trusts me.
I don’t get to stare out into the daytime Detroit streets as I finish braiding Pri’s hair. And maybe it is the feel of my hands on her scalp that makes her open up to me, so she is the first to tell her story. With each braid, with each touch, I begin to know and understand my dear cousins, my sisters from another mother.
Ma named us Primadonna and Princess ’cause she thought being born in America to a father with a good-paying job at a car factory and a house and a bright future meant that we would be royalty. But when our father got killed, that’s when shit fell apart. We don’t remember too much of that ’cause we were little. But by the time we got to middle school, Ma had the newest car on the block—a minivan with leather seats. Then later, we had the first flat-screen, the first laptops, the first cell phones out of everybody we knew. Yeah, there were dudes always rolling up to the house with stacks, and other dudes standing on our front steps keeping watch and shit. But we did all right. We did better than all right.
You’d think bitches would respect us for having a mother who did whatever it takes to keep her daughters fed, dressed, and safe. But no. In the second grade, this little bitch stole my Dora the Explorer book bag. That’s when I learned how to fight. Chantal got it the worst because she was actually born in Haiti and she still spoke Creole. And Ma did our hair in these big, dookie braids with rainbow barrettes and bows and shit. They thought just ’cause we were Haitian, we didn’t bathe, we wore mismatched colors, and we did voodoo. The nice ones just kept asking us if we spoke French. Even though Chantal kept telling them that “Sak pase? Map boule!” is not French. It’s Creole, bitch.
Donna and her fast ass was the first one to get a boyfriend, and she always liked to tell people that she was French. Like from Paris, France, for real. This one time, a crew of girls from the east side challenged Donna on her Frenchness. They jumped her, but we all know that’s not why they beat her up. Donna was tall and pretty and had all the guys from here to the east side wanting to holla at her. Now, I didn’t give a fuck if other girls called me fat, but I swear, anybody lay a hand on my sister . . . So, yeah. I beat the shit out of that girl. And her friends, too.
In middle school, it got around that we spoke French. And some dumb motherfucker started calling us the Frenchie Sisters. It didn’t help that our last name is François. By high school, Chantal had gotten a scholarship to some fancy prep school, University Liggett, Donna was going out with Dray, and I was . . . well, let’s just say I was the brawn. I don’t remember who came up with it first, but Chantal is the brains, Donna is the beauty, and me, I’m the brawn. Three Bees. The biggest, baddest bitches from the west side. Nobody, I mean nobody, fucks with us.
“DOESN’T IT LOOK like a haunted castle?” Chantal asks after she parks the car.
I step into my very first snowfall. It started a few minutes ago while we were in the car. The roads here are so wide and straight and clean. We pass a small crowd standing near what looks like a bus stop—a tiny glass shelter with a single bench. Their hoods and thick coats make them look like the fat iguanas that cling to the bright-red flamboyant trees back home. Nothing here is alive with color like in Haiti. The sun hides behind a concrete sky. I search the landscape for yellows, oranges, pinks, or turquoises like in my beloved Port-au-Prince. But God has painted this place gray and brown. Only a thin white sheet of snow covers the burned-out houses and buildings. The flakes seem to appear from out of nowhere, like an invisible hand sprinkling salt onto zombies.
I am no zombie. I sniff the salty snow-filled air to make sure that I stay alive and human. If it’s snowing in New Jersey, I hope Manman does the same. The thought that my mother may not be seeing outside crosses my mind and I shake it off.
I glance up and down the wide street before stepping into the haunted castle that will be my new school. A few cars stop in front of the building and teenagers spill out onto the sidewalk. Pri and Donna leave for their first class, while Chantal and I head to an office where students wander in and out—most with their uniform skirts shorter than mine. I pull my skirt up a bit.
“Yeah, I know it’s below your knees,” Chantal says. “You don’t have to be like everybody else.”
“Not even in Haiti do girls my age wear their skirts so long, unless they’ve devoted their lives to being a virgin,” I say.
Chantal stares at me for a long second. Then she laughs. “Well, are you a virgin?”
Before I can answer, someone calls out Chantal’s name. A white woman with orange hair comes toward us with open arms.
“Chantal François,” the lady says. “Look at you.”
“Hi, Ms. Stanley.” Chantal’s voice is as sweet as mangoes, and she smiles big and bright and holds her head down. She becomes a different Chantal, like the one at the airport.
“Liggett took what could’ve been our best student away. How’d they treat you over there? Lemme guess. You’re up for the weekend from Yale? Harvard? Princeton?”
Chantal shakes her head and the smile disappears from her face.
“Okay. I remember you saying you wanted to get as far away from Detroit as you possibly could. Stanford? UCLA?” The lady is holding both Chantal’s hands and is looking straight into her eyes.
“ULS was fine and college is great, Ms. Stanley” is all Chantal says. Then she turns to me. “This is my cousin, Fabiola. She just got here from Haiti.”
This Ms. Stanley is like an overripe banana—too sweet and mushy. She’s so excited about my coming from Haiti, she hugs me for too long and holds my hand too tight. She asks so many questions I can’t keep up, until she finally asks if I speak English. Chantal answers for me.
“Well, great. Let’s get you all registered,” she says. “I’m sure you’re excited to be going to school with your cousins.”
We follow Ms. Stanley into her office. Chantal and I sit at a desk while the woman pulls out a folder from a file.
“You have all the documents you need?” Ms. Stanley asks.
Chantal takes out a big yellow envelope from her bag and slides it to Ms. Stanley. “My mother will come in with all her documents. We just didn’t want her to miss a day of school and have to stay at home alone and all.”
I quickly turn to Chantal, but she shoots me a look that says trust me.
Ms. Stanley takes the thick envelope without opening it and nods. “You know, those documents won’t really be necessary for now. This should cover her tuition for a while. How is your mother doing, by the way?”
“She’s fine,” Chantal says quickly.
Ms. Stanley nods, smiles, and disappears out of the office with the envelope.
Chantal turns to me and says, “My mother worked hard to make sure that you and your mother are taken care of. And she’s not just making bank—she is the damn bank. But your cousins think it’s gonna last forever. I keep telling them we have to save.”
“Matant Jo is a bank?” I ask with my eyes wide.
“Well.” Chantal pauses. Then she inhales and says, “Yeah, you can say that. She loans money out. Makes money from the interest. Like a bank, but a whole lot less complicated, and a whole lot riskier. So yeah, like I told you this morning, she works her butt off.”
I fidget with the pleats on my uniform skirt. “Why don’t I go to a free school?” I ask.
“Did you go to a free school in Haiti?”
“Free school in Haiti? No way.”
“All right, then. Ma thinks that anything free is just bullshit. Especially in this city. You don’t want a bullshit education.”
Ms. Stanley comes back in and motions for me to leave the office with her. Chantal waves me off.
“Honey, tell me how you pronounce your full name,” Ms. Stanley says before we enter a loud classroom.
“Fabiola Toussaint. FAH-BYO-LA TOO-SAINT,” I enunciate slowly.
With Matant Jo’s money back in Haiti, my mother was able to send me to one of the very best English-speaking schools. My classmates were the sons and daughters of NGO executives, Syrian businessmen, Haitian foutbòl stars, and world-renowned musicians. We were all shades of brown and not-brown. This is what the tuition paid for—to be with other students who were examples of the world.
Here, the class fidgets and talks loudly and the teacher rushes his lesson.
I have no pens, no notebook, no textbook—only my ears and memory. I try to keep up, but I quickly introduce myself to the girl sitting next to me as the other students get up from their seats and leave the classroom.
“That’s a pretty name,” she says, tossing her long locks back.
“My mom named me,” I say, then wish I’d said something more interesting.
“I’m Imani,” she replies. I can’t take my eyes off her hair.
“They’re real. You can grow them, too, if you want. You just have to be patient. Where’s that accent from?”
“Haiti,” I say, trying to say it like Americans. We walk out of the classroom together.
“That’s right. You the Three Bees’ cousin,” she says, examining me from head to toe.
I almost don’t want to be the Three Bees’ cousin from the way this Imani looks at me. So I start to walk quickly ahead of her.
“Wait,” she says, following behind me. “Everyone thinks you’re the Fourth Bee.”
“Me? The Fourth Bee? No way!”
“But Pri is going around telling everybody not to mess with her cuzz. She’s scaring the boys away, too, in case they might wanna holla at you,” Imani says as she pulls her heavy book bag over her shoulder.
I don’t let her see me smile. “They’re my cousins, but I am not a . . . bee.”
“I know you’re from Haiti and all, so if you knew about the stories I’ve heard, you’d want to have the Three Bees as your fam. You tell anybody that Pri and ’em over on Joy Road are your cousins, you’ll be like royalty.”
“What stories?” I start to ask. Students pour out into the hallway and Imani moves closer to me so she can whisper.
“They just go hard for each other,” she says really low. “If something goes down with Donna, Pri is right there fighting for her. And I hear she throws some hard punches. She don’t fight like a bitch with all that hair pulling and scratching. Chantal, on the other hand, uses her rich-people connects from her old high school to get people’s cars towed and shit like that. And ’cause they’re Haitian, everybody thinks they do that voodoo shit. Is it true? Do they put hexes on people? I hear their mother is a voodoo queen who goes by Aunt Jo.”
I let out a loud laugh, because everything Imani says sounds so outrageous. Then I quickly cover my mouth because the students start looking at me. I can feel their whispers on my skin. I don’t want all this attention. If my cousins are indeed royalty here, then I am just a peasant who only wants a good education, opportunity for a good future, and my mother. This is what she hopes for me, too.
I have two more classes with Imani and then it’s time for lunch. I watch my cousins in the cafeteria. They fold their wild, crazy selves into tiny squares at school—no fighting, no cursing, just royal. Donna walks as if she’s a supermodel—with her done-up face and her flowing hair and her nose in the air. The boys go out of their way just to say hi to her. Pri knows everyone and she’s always telling jokes and laughing. At the end of the day, when Chantal picks us up, she attracts a small crowd who insist on talking to her about everything and nothing. My cousins are indeed royalty here.
Never could I have imagined being in a house full of family and still feeling lonely. Loud music plays upstairs and the TV blares downstairs. No one is cooking in the kitchen even with the nice stove and refrigerator filled with food. I’m sitting at the table eating my dinner out of paper bags—a hamburger, French fries, and soda.
The whole house seems to want to squeeze me in, force a deep wail from out of my body because it’s only been one day and I am losing myself to this new place. This is the opposite of the earthquake, where things were falling apart and the ground was shifting beneath my small feet. Here, the walls, the air, the buildings, the people all seem to have already fallen. And there is nothing else left to do but to shrink and squeeze until everything has turned to dust and disappeared.
But not yet. Not without my mother.
I get up from the table and gently knock on Matant Jo’s bedroom door three times before I say her name the way she wants me to say it. “Aunt Jo?”
I hear footsteps and shuffling. She opens the door. She squints her eyes, and her hair is thin and lies flat against her head. She’s been wearing a wig all this time.
“My mother is still not here,” I say. My voice trembles, and the words come out of my mouth like a sudden rainstorm.
“I know” is all she says at first. She shuffles to the edge of her bed. It’s a little dark in the room and there’s a small TV on top of a dresser. The volume is down and I wonder what she does in there all day. Then she says, “My hands are tied, Fabiola. I did everything to get my sister here. Everything. I would’ve kissed the ground if she had walked through that door with you.”
“You knew she wasn’t coming, Matant? I mean, Aunt.”
“Things are complicated.”
“She was on the line with me. She had all her papers. They gave her a visa.”
“I know, I know,” she says, holding her head down. “You are smart. Your mother told me how your English was so good that those Americans had no choice but to grant her a visa.”
“It wasn’t me. She had all her papers. She was supposed to be here. They were supposed to let her in.”
She motions for me to come inside her bedroom. I step over some clothes and stand next to her bed.
“In some ways,” she says, “this country is like Haiti. They talk out of two sides of their mouth. You can never know what these people are going to do.”
“Aunt Jo, is my mother coming or not?” I ask. I know how adult Haitians can talk in riddles and never give you a straight answer. Even with her years of living in America, this is still true for my aunt.
She exhales. “Fabiola, those people and their rules are like sorcerers. If I go digging too deep into their trickery, I will end up with an ass for a face, and a face for an ass.”
“You are saying no. My mother is not coming? They are sending her back?”
She doesn’t answer and points to the dresser where the small TV sits. “The fourth drawer,” she says. “You will see a book, a Bible. Bring it to me.”
I do as she says. She takes the Bible and pats the spot next to her on the bed. I sit beside her and feel her warm arm against mine. It almost feels like my mother’s. Almost.
This is your home now, Fabiola. This is Phillip’s house—the house he bought with the last bit of money he had from Haiti. He had dreams, you know. That’s why when he saw this house for sale, on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, he insisted on buying it with the cash from his ransacked and burned-to-the-ground car dealership in Port-au-Prince. He thought he was buying American Joy. So he sent for me and our baby daughter, Chantal. I could not have asked for anything more—a house, a bit of money, and the love of my life. He was all I had—no friends, no family, no Haitian community like in Miami or New York. He was my everything. He came here for the cars and car factories. You’d think it would’ve been a car that killed him since he loved them so much. But no. The car he left behind is gone now, but we have this house. Even if everything burns to the ground by some twisted magic, it will still be the last house standing. But Phillip also left a hole in my heart, like the bullet wound in the back of his head. This hole has spread around me like a cancer. Maybe that will be my salvation, my death. Cancer, another stroke, a heart attack. Now that I won’t ever see my dear sister, I don’t care how I go. Maybe you, like my daughters, will fill this hole with a little bit of love until my time comes.
MATANT JO KEEPS a stash of money in her dresser, inside a Bible. She gave me a pair of one-hundred-dollar bills, two fifties, and five twenties from a pile of endless bills. She said it’s for my expenses. I promise myself not to let the cousins know that I have this money. I don’t want to join in on their arguments.
So I carry the four hundred dollars in my bag, in a wallet, as if it’s simply pocket change. It’s the most money I’ve had to myself. It makes me walk taller and speak with more confidence. This unearned cash makes me feel a little bit more American. This is the beginning of the good life, I think.
It’s Friday and Chantal has come to the school early to run errands with Pri and Donna. I was told to wait in the lobby until four o’clock, a whole hour after school has ended. I wonder what it is that they need to do that shouldn’t involve me. But still, I’m grateful for the little bit of freedom. And with my money, I have more courage to step out into this new free world.
There are still kids in the building practicing sports and participating in clubs, and some of them sit outside on the steps talking and laughing. As I walk outside, some say hi and some ignore me, but they still know that I’m the Three Bees’ cousin, as they say. I look up and down the block—Vernor Highway. Other kids are walking to the bus stop. I have enough money to take the bus all the way to the end of Detroit and back if I want to. I can even walk into a restaurant to eat by myself or go to a store to shop for clothes.
I let my feet take me down the block to a big store called CVS pharmacy. I almost run across the intersection even though the lights say I have the right of way. I don’t trust these speeding cars with too much road around them. A woman bumps into me, or I into her. I can’t tell because she seems to appear from out of nowhere. I quickly apologize with my very best English and step away. Any hint of an accent could be an invitation for judgment—that I’m stupid and I don’t belong here. But the woman is kind and smiles and apologizes, saying that it was her fault.
But then she asks, “Are you from around here?”
“Yes.” I nod. I look down at her clothes and shoes. Her coat is decent and clean, her jeans are plain, her boots look new, and her face is hard, but safe—like a schoolteacher’s. But still, she’s a stranger. I start to walk away.
“Do you go to that high school over there?” she asks. “Catholic, right? I hear it’s good.”
I turn to her and only smile a little.
The lady follows me into the CVS, but she goes down another aisle as I stand there staring at the enormity of it all. So many things to buy. So many choices. Matant Jo was right about this country talking out of two sides of its mouth. This store is more than just a pharmacy. I walk out with only a bag of potato chips, juice, lip gloss, and gloves.
When I’m back at the school, Chantal and the twins are already waiting at the curb. As we pull away, I spot the lady who bumped into me, or I into her. I don’t know. She seems to be staring at this car, right into this window. Or maybe she’s looking at the school since she asked about it. I can’t tell for sure. I watch her from the backseat of the car as she walks down the block alone. Pri has already dug her thick hand into my bag of potato chips. I don’t ask where my cousins have been or why they left me. I’m only grateful.
Something tugs at my belly and I turn to the back window, looking for that lady again. But she’s long gone now.
ON MY FIRST Saturday night here, music pumps through every corner of the house. The bass pulses in my bones and I wish I could plug my ears. Aunt Jo is dressed up in too-tight jeans and a nice bright shirt for the first time since I arrived, and she has guests in the living room—four men who smoke and curse just as much as Pri. If Matant Jo is a bank, then these men must be her bank tellers. Except no customers come to the house.
I avoid going downstairs even though I’m hungry. Manman will not believe me when I tell her that I am hungrier here than I ever was in Port-au-Prince. Not from a lack of food, but from a lack of willing and able cooks.
Donna has picked out my clothes for a birthday party—a new black dress that’s so tight, it looks like another layer of skin. I’m sitting on the edge of Chantal’s bed, waiting for Donna to do my hair, when Pri comes in and stands right in front of my altar. She stares at the magic things for a while without touching them before she asks, “Does it work?”
“Well,” I say. “Has anyone ever tried to kill you?” I have to speak loudly over the music.
Pri turns around and closes the bedroom door, muting the music a bit.
“Kill me? Ain’t nobody rolling up in this house to kill anyone.”
“I know. We made it so. Me and my mother. Every day we asked the lwas to protect our family in Detroit and their house,” I say, adjusting my bra.
“Oh, you did some voodoo shit to protect us?” she asks with her arms crossed.
“It’s not voodoo shit,” I tell her. “Manman told me that ever since Uncle Phillip was killed, she had to find answers to why God took away the one true love in her sister’s life. But only the lwas were able to give her answers. They speak to her, and she listens.”
Pri comes to sit next to me on the bed. “Fabiola, I know you’re family and all, but keep my father’s name out your mouth,” she says, and kisses two of her fingers and raises them up to the ceiling.
I nod, even though my mother has been setting up shrines and praying for Pri’s father’s soul on the anniversary of his death each year. And we always say his name in remembrance—Jean-Phillip François.
Donna barges into the bedroom wearing only her fancy underwear and holding a basket filled with combs, curlers, a curling iron, a flat iron, a blow-dryer, pomades, hair lotions, and makeup. “Ready for your fabulous makeover, Fabiola?”
“No,” I tell her.
“Well, you need one,” she says, and starts with my hair anyway.
By the time she’s done, fake hair flows down my back and my new face looks plastic—my eyebrows are perfectly arched and thicker than I’ve ever seen them, my lips are magically fuller, and my eyelashes look like bangs for my eyes.
Pri, Aunt Jo, and her friends all cheer and clap when I come down the stairs in borrowed high heels that make my legs wobble, and Donna takes a few pictures of me. Chantal only shakes her head as if she disapproves of the whole makeover. I want to tell Donna not to put them on the internet, but maybe this new self will reach my mother and she will come to smack the makeup from off my face and rip the tight dress from my body.
Chantal drives us, but she doesn’t come to the party. “Be careful, y’all! And look out for each other,” she says as Pri gives her a time to pick us up.
“Why don’t you come?” I ask her before getting out of the car.
“I have a big test this week” is all she says.
This birthday party is at a nightclub—a plain, short, and wide building. It has one narrow purple door with the letter Q on it drawn in bright-silver paint. The street is crowded with people, and a few come over to say hi and hug my cousins. My cousins’ friends stare at me and start asking too many questions.
It’s not their bodies inching closer that make me nervous, it’s their words that sound just like the heavy bass music—hard and fast like too-loud conga drums.
The smell is different here. Not like in Port-au-Prince, where everyone on the street is a mix of sweat, gasoline, and baby powder. Here, it smells like the MINUSTAH troops who hang out at the clubs in Petionville on Saturday nights—alcohol, marijuana, and lust. Some of my friends would go for money and a good time, but I never liked it.
Pri pulls my arm hard, away from the crowd, and yells, “Y’all better not put a finger on my cousin, or it’s my fucking fist in your face!”
“Yo, chill, Pri!” a guy standing nearby says. “Ain’t nobody checking for your cousin.”
“You better not. Nasty ass,” Pri says.
The guys standing on the sidewalk are all covered with thick, dark coats and baseball caps that shield their eyes. They hold red plastic cups in one hand while the other hand is shoved into a pocket of jeans that hang too low below their waist. They are the vagabon who Manman tells me to stay away from because they lead to nothing but trouble, the vagabon who my friends like to have as boyfriends because they can rap and have their own money and cars. Wyclef is their god and American rap videos are their church. But those Port-au-Prince vagabon are fakers. These Detroit vagabon are the real thing.
As Pri pulls me in through the purple door, my eyes lock with one of the vagabon. He pushes his blue cap up and stares right at me, smiling. I stare back at him until I recognize him. The blue-cap boy—the one who came out of the car to help Bad Leg. He’s not a man but a boy, probably my age. I smile a little, too—my small way of saying “thank you.”
Inside is as dark as it is outside. Bodies are pressed up against one another just like they do on the narrow, crumbled sidewalks of Delmas. The men are in their coats while most of the women are dressed like in the American music videos—short, shiny dresses that look like tinfoil around their thighs, shoes with heels like ice picks, and hair from the tails of horses. Here, there is more smoke, more alcohol, and the conga drum voices blend with the heavy bass music. Pri has to push her way through. Some people stop to give her a hug. Some smile at me and tell me, “Welcome to the D, shorty!”
Someone hands me a red plastic cup and I take it because I’m thirsty and hungry. But it’s alcohol. Not Prestige beer or Rhum Barbancourt—the strong, bitter, or sweet alcohol made for men who talk politics and play dominoes into all hours of the night. Pri has a red plastic cup, too, and she pours the alcohol down her throat as if it’s cool water on a hot day.
The music changes. It’s faster now, and I look back at the crowd. Everyone dips and sways to the rhythm. It’s the familiar music my friends like, too. But they don’t dance the same way. Here, everyone knows the words; everyone dances to the beat just right.
A guy wearing an eye patch steps closer to me and starts dancing. His presence feels like a heavy shadow, a darkness. Then Pri puts both her hands on his chest and pushes him away from me. He laughs, then tries to give her a hug.
As he talks to Pri, something about the way he stands and moves triggers a memory. If the blue-cap boy is outside the club, then the punching man is standing right in front of me. I’m sure of it because he has the same stance, the same gait. The blue-cap boy called him Dray.
When I get a better look at his face, my stomach sinks. He’s definitely the one who punched Bad Leg. He looks younger up close, but older than me—maybe Chantal’s age. There is a black patch over his left eye and his face is a series of sharp lines—a tight jaw, a straight nose, and a hard smile. Even if I hadn’t seen him do that to the poor old man, something about the way he grins and that eye patch makes him look like he’s been to the underworld and back.
I’ve learned to recognize these faces back in Port-au-Prince. There are harmless vagabon who are just as scared as you are when they try to steal your money at knifepoint; and then there are the malfekté, the truly evil, who are not afraid to stick that knife into your belly. He is malfekté, for sure.
“I’m just fucking with her. You can’t keep her in a cage while she’s here, Pri,” Dray says. His voice sounds as if it’s coming from the depths of dark, broken places. I can feel it in my bones.
“I don’t like all these guys staring at her like she’s fresh meat,” Pri replies.
“She is fresh meat. And I’m sure she can take care of herself. Haiti’s rougher than the D and Chi-Town put together.” He licks his lips while staring at me with his one good eye.
“I can take care of myself,” I say. Maybe too loud.
The man laughs. “Of course you can take care of yourself,” he says. “You’re gonna have to. And your English is pretty good, shorty. I’m Dray, by the way.” He holds out his hand for me to shake. It’s cold and rough. He squeezes my hand and it’s as if he’s sent shards of glass down my body. I pull away. He shrugs and smiles his fake smile as Donna and another boy come over to us—the blue-cap boy. Dray slaps the boy’s hand and then slides his arm around Donna’s waist, squeezing her butt—as if he owns these two people.
“This is my cousin, Fabiola,” Donna says to the blue-cap boy.
“Fab what?” he asks, easing closer to me.
I step back. “Fabiola.”
“Fabulous?” he asks.
“Fabiola!” both Pri and I shout.
“Fabulous,” he says.
“No. FAH-B-YO-LAH!” I shout over the music.
“FA-BYOU-LESS,” he says even louder. “I’m Kasim. KAH-SEEM.”
I laugh because his name sounds like the Creole word for “break me.” So I say, “Broke.”
“If you call me Fabulous, I will call you Broke.”
He laughs. “You got jokes? I’m far from being broke, sweetheart.” He steps closer to me.
I step away again. “Broke,” I repeat.
“Fabulous,” he says again, licking his lips while he grabs my hand.
“Let go of me, Broke,” I say, pulling away from him.
He lets go. “You got some fire in you, Fabulous.”
I roll my eyes and turn away. If he has anything to do with Dray, then I don’t want anything to do him. I don’t need a vagabon’s attention right now. I’m still wearing my coat even though everyone has taken theirs off and it’s as hot as Haiti in here. My dress is too tight and too short and I don’t want Dray’s piercing eyes on me, not even the blue-cap boy’s, Kasim. So I pull up the thick collar and cross my arms. I even begin to wish Chantal was here—at least there would be someone to sit next to me. But she has to study. I want to study, too, so I promise myself to stay behind with Chantal the next time my wild twin cousins decide to go to a party.
Pri and Donna seem to know the whole world here. Donna does all the talking, and Pri dances while a small crowd begins to form around her. She moves her feet about so fast, she looks as if she’s tap-dancing. She dips and kicks and spins on her toes and crouches down to the floor with one leg behind her other leg. I have to stand up now to see her. A boy comes into the circle and does the same thing Pri is doing, except with stronger kicks and faster spins.
I finally take my coat off and hang it over the chair, so I can try to do one of those moves. But I almost break an ankle. Someone next to me laughs. I turn to see Kasim leaning against a nearby wall. I roll my eyes and let out a long, tired sigh.
“You’re trying to do the Detroit Jit, Fabulous? I can show you,” he says, and starts to walk over to me.
He does something funny with his feet and pretends to trip. I turn away to hide my smile.
“Hey! I saw that smile. Finally!”
I shake my head and put on a serious face again.
“Are all Haitian girls built like you?”
“What? Built like me?”
“I mean, you know, strong and Ford tough.”
I shake my head and walk away from him. He gasps.
“Damn, shorty! That dress!”
I keep walking and pushing my way through the crowd.
He follows me and I stop when I see Donna and Dray in a corner at the other end of the club. He has his arm around her neck and her head is pressed up against his pit where all his sweat rubs against the top of her hair. It looks like he is choking her.
“Why is your friend doing that to my cousin?” I ask Kasim, pointing with my chin.
“Who? Dray and Donna? We call them D&D. Dungeons and Dragons. He’s the dungeon and she’s the dragon. Dray is putting her in a headlock to tame that dragon.”
“What? Donna? A dragon?”
“I guess you don’t know your cousins very well,” Kasim says. He moves closer to me as Pri’s circle disperses and people start to crowd back onto the dance floor. “Don’t worry. We won’t be like them. You’ll just be your Fabulous self, and I’ll keep being Broke Kasim. We could be Fabulous and Broke.”
I laugh and cover my mouth, and he pulls my hand away. I let him see me smile. “Your name . . . it means ‘broke’ in Creole.”
He smiles back and he keeps holding my hand. “Oh, really? I can’t have that. Then call me ‘filthy rich’ in Creole instead.” He licks his lips. “You look real nice in that dress, though.”
A song I know comes on and my body obeys the familiar rhythm. We dance, but I don’t dare look into his face. Instead, I keep my eyes on Donna as Dray gives her a drink. A slower song comes on—not one that will force me to lay my head on Kasim’s shoulder, but one that makes him pull me in at the waist and press my body against his. I push him away because my heart is beating too fast. I look around as if my mother’s eyes are in the walls here. But it’s Pri who is staring at us. She doesn’t smile or nod in approval. She simply watches Kasim. Kasim follows my gaze and laughs.
“You gonna let your cousin cock block?” he asks with his dimpled smile.
I step away from him. “Cock block? Excuse me, but there will be no cock over here, okay!”
I leave him to his cock and walk back to my seat next to the food. Pri laughs from afar as Broke Kasim stands there with his mouth open, catching flies, as Manman would say. I don’t move even as everyone surrounds the birthday girl to wish her a happy eighteenth.
The night goes on and Kasim is always a few feet away, watching my every move while talking to friends and even other girls. I watch him, too, from the corner of my eye. Even though I told him to get away from me, there is something pulling me closer to him. I lose track of my cousins and realize the room is almost empty.
“They’re already outside,” Kasim says, coming over to me with my coat.
Outside, I spot Pri in front of the club, yelling at Dray. Donna is a few feet away, crouched down with her hair hanging to the ground.
I run to help. I pull her hair back and check her forehead. “Donna? What’s wrong?”
“Here. Give her some water.” Kasim holds out a plastic cup as I try to get Donna to sit up.
“She should’ve left your ass a long time ago!” Pri shouts, and her voice echoes down the dark street. Most of the partygoers are still in front of the club even though it’s like a refrigerator out here. Everybody stares at us, but no one seems to care that Donna is sick.
A small group of adults comes over and starts to ease us away from the building.
“Donna,” Dray says, trying to make her stand up. “I’ll take you home.”
“Hell no, you ain’t taking her home!” Pri shouts.
“I wanna go with him,” Donna mumbles. She holds her head up and finally opens her eyes to take Dray’s arm, but she still stumbles forward on the sidewalk.
“See? That’s what I’m talking about, D,” Pri says. “You like the way he treats you? You’re not going into the car with him, Donna! He kept giving you drinks when you were about to pass out.”
“She asked for them!” Dray says, yanking open the passenger door of his white car.
Donna drops her body into the seat.
“She’s getting real tired of y’all trying to control her life,” Dray says as he slams the car door. “Pri, just ’cause y’all twins don’t mean y’all joined at the motherfuckin’ hips.”
Pri inhales and clenches her fists. She bangs on the hood of a nearby car.
At the same moment, I notice Chantal’s car pulling up to the curb. She quickly comes over to Dray’s car. “What’s going on?” she yells. Her voice is different again, harder, as if she’s had to do this plenty of times before.
“Calm the fuck down, Chantal. I’m gonna take her home,” Dray says. “I don’t need to be dealing with this shit.”
“I’ll ride in the back,” Kasim says as he goes over to Dray’s car.
As if the boy already has my heart tied to his littlest finger, I say, “I’ll go, too. I will make sure she’s okay.”
I don’t even glance at my cousins to see if they would stop me. In the blink of an eye, I’m in the warm backseat of Dray’s car with Kasim next to me. It smells like a mix of freshly chopped wood and wild leaves—marijuana. I cover my nose and keep my eyes on my cousin, even as Kasim keeps looking over at me, smiling, and inching his hand closer and closer to my leg.
When we reach Aunt Jo’s house, Chantal and Pri are already standing in front, and the car is parked at the curb. The singing man is on the corner again. I can’t make out the words to his song, but I lean toward Dray in the driver’s seat. “Don’t hit him again,” I say.
He turns to me and so does Donna. “Who? Bad Leg? Nobody gives a fuck about him.”
Just as he says this, Bad Leg’s voice reaches my bones—it’s as smooth as a river, and it ebbs and flows and ripples at just the right moments. I can’t pull away from his song as I get out of that car. Pri has come over to help Donna, and she curses Dray one last time.
As we all enter the house and Dray and Kasim zoom off into the night, Bad Leg finishes his song with these words:
Love me to the moon and back.
Come on, babe, just cut me some slack.
Baby, why you always on the attack?
Put up your dukes, ha!
Show me them nukes, yeah!
And launch me to the moon and back.
I see you clearer now because I light my candle and pour the libation, rattle the asson, and ring the bell to call all my guides, the lwas. You’ve told me that they are here for me. All I have to do is call on them so they can help me. I believe you, Manman. Even without you being here to hold ceremonies with drummers and singers and a village of followers, I will practice all that you’ve taught me.
There, within the flame of the tea candle again, you are on your bed crying into a piece of brown paper. It’s too rough on your cheeks and nose, so you use the white sheet instead. You’re careful not to let anyone see you cry. How did you get there, Manman? What did you do? Is it because you are a mambo—a Vodou priestess who held ceremonies in the courtyard of a Christian NGO building? Are they punishing you for that, Manman? Are they punishing me? I’ve searched my memory for all the sinful things I’ve done. I let Marco touch me the night before we left. Was the lwa of love and fertility, Ezili, mad at me for that? Is that why she summoned her lover, Papa Legba, to block you from entering the gates to this freedom, to this sister of yours, to your nieces, and to me?
Matant Jo misses you so much that she is incapable of doing anything for herself. The other day, she held my face in her hands and prayed to God that it was your face and not mine. And just like I saw you do in the tea-candle flame, she grabbed the corner of her white sheet and wiped her tears.
Kenbe fem. Hold tight.
“DOES DRAY HIT her?” I ask Chantal and Pri after Donna is all bathed, in her pajamas, and passed out. It seems like no one else wants to sleep tonight. Pri and I are playing a card game while Chantal reads.
“Why? Did you see him hit her?” Pri holds her cards up as if she makes money from these games. She shuffles and deals like a gambler.
“The singing man on the corner said so. It’s like his poetry and songs are what he sees. He said something about an attack and putting up dukes. That’s like hitting and fighting, right?”
“What are you talking about? Bad Leg? He actually told you that shit?”
“It was in his poem if you listened.”
“Nobody listens to Bad Leg—that crazy-ass man. Some people around here even call him the devil. Got needle marks all up his arm and still ain’t dead. Ma said he was a crackhead when she first moved here. He’s gotten beaten up, burned up, tossed over the overpass on the highway, thrown in the river, and he still show up right there on that corner.”
“Why do they call him Bad Leg?”
“I’ll give you twenty dollars to ask him.” Pri puts down a two of diamonds. “For every person who has ever asked Bad Leg what happened to his leg, he tells a different story each time.”
“Yep.” Chantal looks up from her book. “I must’ve asked him fifty times and he gave me fifty different stories—his leg got crushed in Iraq, it got caught in a machine at a factory, Detroit rats nibbled on it when he was homeless.”
“Ain’t he still homeless? And he told me he was tortured by an east side gang,” Pri says as she collects my small pile of cards into her growing pile.
“I will get the real story,” I say.
My cousins are all asleep, but I’m still awake, staring at the low white ceiling and counting my problems with every breath. I have not slept since being in this new home; I only rest my eyes. The events of the week play out over and over in my mind like a looping movie—my cousins’ voices are the background music to the broken Detroit streets, the easy and boring teachers and schoolwork, the trips to McDonald’s and pizza spots, and the endless seconds, minutes, hours without my mother. The singing man on the corner named Bag Leg provides the lyrics.
Chantal’s clock says it’s three thirty in the morning, and Bad Leg’s voice eases through the locked windows and thick curtains to hover above my air mattress. His river-smooth song pulls me up out of bed. Chantal’s window faces the front of the house, so I see Bad Leg to the far left, still sitting on the overturned plastic bucket with a streetlight shining over him like a limelight. I listen carefully to his words.
Cross my path on your way downtown.
Beware the lady all dressed in brown
’Round the corner and down the road.
Tell me your burdens and I’ll carry your load.
I think of the most dangerous places in Port-au-Prince—Cité Soleil, La Saline, and even some dark corners in Delmas and La Ville. They don’t compare to this empty, sparsely lit road called American Street where only a dog barks and an old man sings before the break of dawn. I tiptoe down to the front closet and pull out the first coat and boots I find. The coat must be one of Pri’s, since it hangs wide and loose over my body. Slowly, I open the door and walk down the front steps and to the corner.
Bad Leg only hums now and I’m a few steps away. I don’t get too close. “Mister?” I ask.
He keeps humming.
“Excuse me, mister?”
He stops humming and stares down Joy Road.
“Sir, I’m here. I just came to ask you about your leg.”
“Welcome to American Joy, little lady.” He sings these words, too, in his deep American southern accent.
“What happened to your leg?” I ask again.
“I left it on the other side.” He laughs a dry, grainy laugh—not like his singing voice. “Forgot to take it with me. Went to visit my daddy, who first moved here back in sixty-one. He was looking for that American joy that everybody said was up here in Motor City—Motown. Thought it meant mo’ money! You, too? Daddy had the sugar. His left leg was eaten up so bad, it looked like pork sausage.”
“Bad. Leg,” I whisper to myself, trying to make sense of what he is saying.
“So when I went over to the other side to see him, he asked to borrow my good left leg. That was when I was a fine young thing—had all my teeth. You don’t go over to the other side with your whole body. You gots to keep it right here—like a wet coat or muddy shoes before you walk up into somebody’s nice house. So you’re nothing but hot air and memory over there on the other side. I was walking around just fine with my missing leg. Thought I’d given my daddy the memory of a leg—you know, give him back that feeling of walking on two feet instead of one good foot and a pork sausage. Till I got back home and was flesh and blood again. Tried to walk over to the kitchen to fry an egg and fell right on my face and lost my front teeth at the same time. My left leg was still intact, all right, but its soul was all gone. Couldn’t move it, bend it, kick. Shit! Could chop my leg off and wouldn’t feel a thing ’cause it has no soul. I left it on the other side. It was as dead as Marvin Gaye.”
“Leg. Bad,” I say loud and clear, because I now see him for who he is—the old man at the crossroads with his hat and cane and riddles come to open doors for me. He is the lwa who guards the gates to everything good—to everything bad, too. “Bad. Leg. Legba. Papa Legba.”
“Please, Papa Legba. Why won’t you let my mother through to this side?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he closes his eyes and leans his body all the way to one side without falling off the bucket. His bad leg stretches out in front of him as dead as a fallen tree.
I rush back into the house because the cold threatens to swallow me whole. Back in Chantal’s room, I light a tea candle and begin my prayers for my mother. I don’t ring a bell or rattle the asson. Instead, Papa Legba, the keeper of the crossroads, the one who will open the gates for my mother, sings his song. It creeps through the windows.
Pull up a chair, let’s have a meal,
Shuffle them cards, let’s make a deal.
I’ll give you the key and set you free,
Be right here waiting for just a small fee.
Beware the lady all dressed in brown.
Don’t even know her way downtown.
“I know you’re not really listening to that crazy man.” Chantal rolls over, awake.
I miss the last words of Papa Legba’s song. I rush to the window to see if he’s still there, but Papa Legba is gone. All that’s left is the plastic bucket.
“He’s Papa Legba,” I say. “He sits at the crossroads and he holds a cane.”
“That’s what Ma used to say when we were little. That man has been there at that corner just about all my life. But he comes and goes.”
“So why don’t you ask him for help?”
“’Cause he’s a crazy old man, that’s why. He’s not a lwa and he’s not magical. Now can you please go to sleep?”
I don’t. I stay up until the morning sun reaches me. I will set my mother free. Papa Legba, the one who stands at the center of all crossroads and in front of all doors, will make it so.