Read Breath, Eyes, Memory Online

Authors: Edwidge Danticat

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Family Life, #Cultural Heritage, #General

Breath, Eyes, Memory (6 page)

Chapter 9

I
was eighteen and going to start college in the fall. My mother continued working her two jobs, but she put in even longer hours. And we moved to a one-family house in a tree-lined neighborhood near where Marc lived.

In the new place, my mother had a patch of land in the back where she started growing hibiscus. Daffodils would need more care and she had grown tired of them.

We decorated our new living room in red, everything from the carpet to the plastic roses on the coffee table. I had my very own large bedroom with a new squeaky bed. My mother's room was even bigger, with a closet that you could have entertained some friends in. In some places in Haiti, her closet would have been a room on its own, and the clothes would not have bothered the fortunate child who would sleep in it.

Before the move, I had been going to a Haitian Adventist school that went from elementary right to high school. They had guaranteed my mother that they would get me into college and they had lived up to their pledge. Now my first classes at college were a few months away and my mother couldn't have been happier. Her sacrifices had paid off.

I never said this to my mother, but I hated the Maranatha Bilingual Institution. It was as if I had never left Haiti. All the lessons were in French, except for English composition and literature classes. Outside the school, we were "the Frenchies," cringing in our mock-Catholic-school uniforms as the students from the public school across the street called us "boat people" and "stinking Haitians."

When my mother was home, she made me read out loud from the English Composition textbooks. The first English words I read sounded like rocks falling in a stream. Then very slowly things began to take on some meaning. There were words that I heard often. Words that jump out of New York Creole conversations, like the last kernel in a cooling popcorn machine. Words, among others, like
TV,
building, feeling, which Marc and my mother used even when they were in the middle of a heated political discussion in Creole. Mwin gin yon feeling. I have a feeling Haiti will get back on its feet one day, but I'll be dead before it happens. My mother, always the pessimist.

There were other words that helped too, words that looked almost the same in French, but were pronounced differently in English: nationality, alien, race, enemy, date, present. These and other words gave me a context for the rest that I did not understand.

Eventually, I began to hear myself that I read better. I answered swiftly when my mother asked me a question in English. Not that I ever had a chance to show it off at school, but I became an English speaker.

"There is great responsibility that comes with knowledge," my mother would say. My great responsibility was to study hard. I spent six years doing nothing but that. School, home, and prayer.

Tante Atie once said that love is like rain. It comes in a drizzle sometimes. Then it starts pouring and if you're not careful it will drown you.

I was eighteen and I fell in love. His name was Joseph and he was old. He was old like God is old to me, ever present and full of wisdom.

He looked somewhat like Monsieur Augustin. He was the color of ground coffee, with a cropped beard and a voice like molasses that turned to music when he held a saxophone to his lips.

He broke the monotony of my shuffle between home and school when he moved into the empty house next door to ours.

My mother never trusted him. In the back of my mind echoed her constant warning, "You keep away from those American boys." The ones whose eyes followed me on the street. The ones who were supposedly drooling over me afterwards, even though they called me a nasty West Indian to my face. "You keep away from them especially. They are upset because they cannot have you."

Aside from Marc, we knew no other men. Men were as mysterious to me as white people, who in Haiti we had only known as missionaries. I tried to imagine my mother's reaction to Joseph. I could already hear her: "Not if he were the last unmarried man on earth."

When she came home during the day and saw him sitting on his porch steps next door, she would nod a quick hello and walk faster. She wrapped her arms tighter around me, as though to rescue me from his stare.

Somehow, early on, I felt that he might like me. The way his eyes trailed me up the block gave him away. My mother liked to say, "I admire priests because they like women for more than their faces and their buttocks." Joseph's look went beyond the face and the buttocks.

He looked like the kind of man who could buy a girl a meal without asking for her bra in return.

Whenever I went by his stoop, I felt like we were conspiring. How could I smile without my mother noticing and how could he respond to her brisk hello and mine too, without letting her see that wink that was for me alone?

At night, I fantasized that he was sitting somewhere pining away, dreaming about me, thinking of a way to enter my life. Then one day, like rain, he came to my front door.

I was stretched out on the couch with a chemistry book when I heard the knock. I looked through the security peephole to check. It was him.

"Can I use your phone?" he asked. "I've had mine disconnected because I'm going out of town soon."

I opened the door and led him to the phone. Our fingers touched as I handed it to him. He dialed quickly, smiling with his eyes on my face.

"Did we get it?" he asked into the phone.

His feet bounced off the ground when he heard the answer. "Yes!" he shouted. "Yes!"

He handed me back the phone with a wink.

"Have you ever really wanted something great and gotten it?" he asked.

My face must have been blank.

He asked me the question again, then suddenly slapped his forehead.

"I haven't even introduced myself."

"My name is Sophie," I said, jumping ahead.

"I am Joseph," he said. I knew.

"Was it good news you just got?"

"What gave me away?"

He looked at me as though he was waiting for me to say something equally witty. I wasn't as glib, as fast on my feet. I couldn't think of anything.

"It was good news," he answered. "I just found out that we got a gig in the East Village from now until our tour starts."

A gig?

"A job. I am a musician."

"I know," I said. "Sometimes I hear you playing at night."

"Does it bother you?"

"Non, it's very pretty."

"I detect an accent," he said.

Oh please, say a small one, I thought. After seven years in this country, I was tired of having people detect my accent. I wanted to sound completely American, especially for him.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"Haiti."

"Ah," he said, "I have never been there. Do you speak Creole?"

"Oui, Oui," I ventured, for a laugh.

"We, we," he said, pointing to me and him. "We have something in common. Mwin aussi. I speak a form of Creole, too. I am from Louisiana. My parents considered themselves what we call Creoles. Is it a small world or what?"

I shook my head yes. It was a very small world.

"You live alone?" he asked.

My mother's constant suspicion prodded me and I quickly said, "No." Just in case he was thinking of coming over tonight to kill me. This was New York, after all. You could not trust anybody.

"I live with my mother."

"I have seen her," he said.

"She works."

"Nights?"

"Sometimes."

"Did you two just move here?"

"Yes, we did."

"I thought so," he said. "Whenever I'm in New York, I sublet in the neighborhood and I have never seen you walking around before."

"We moved about a year ago."

"That's about the last time I was in Brooklyn."

"Where are you the rest of the year?"

"In Providence."

I was immediately fascinated by the name. Providence. Fate! A town named for the Creator, the Almighty. Who would not want to live there?

"I am away from my house about six months out of the year," he said. "I travel to different places with my band and then after a while I go back for some peace and quiet."

"What is it like in Providence?" I asked.

"It is calm. I can drive to the river and watch the sun set. I think you would like it there. You seem like a deep, thoughtful kind of person."

I am.

"I like that in people. I like that very much."

He glanced down at his feet as though he couldn't think of anything else to say.

I wanted to ask him to stay, but my mother would be home soon.

"I work at home," he finally said, "in case you ever want to drop by."

I spent the whole week with my ear pressed against the wall, listening to him rehearse. He rehearsed day and night, sometimes twelve to ten hours without stopping. Sometimes at night, the saxophone was like a soothing lullaby.

One afternoon, he came by with a ham-and-cheese sandwich to thank me for letting him use the phone. He sat across from me in the living room while I ate very slowly.

"What are you going to study in college?" he asked.

"I think I am going to be a doctor."

"You think? Is this something you like?"

"I suppose so," I said.

"You have to have a passion for what you do."

"My mother says it's important for us to have a doctor in the family."

"What if you don't want to be a doctor?"

"There's a difference between what a person wants and what's good for them."

"You sound like you are quoting someone," he said.

"My mother."

"What would Sophie like to do?" he asked.

That was the problem. Sophie really wasn't sure. I had never really dared to dream on my own.

"You're not sure, are you?"

He even understood my silences.

"It is okay not to have your future on a map," he said. "That way you can flow wherever life takes you."

"That is not Haitian," I said. "That's very American."

"What is?"

"Being a wanderer. The very idea."

"I am not American," he said. "I am African-American."

"What is the difference?"

"The African. It means that you and I, we are already part of each other."

I think I blushed. At least I nearly choked on my sandwich. He walked over and tapped my back.

"Are you all right?"

"I am fine," I said, still short of breath.

"I think you are a fine woman," he said.

I started choking again.

I knew what my mother would think of my going over there during the day. A good girl would never be alone with a man, an older one at that. I wasn't thinking straight. It was nice waking up in the morning knowing I had someone to talk to.

I started going next door every day. The living room was bare except for a couch and a few boxes packed in a corner near his synthesizer and loud speakers.

At first I would sit on the linoleum and listen to him play. Then slowly, I moved closer until sometimes he would let me touch the keyboard, guiding my fingers with his hand on top of mine.

Between strokes, I learned the story of his life. He was from a middle-class New Orleans family. His parents died when he was young. He was on his own by the time he was fifteen. He went to college in Providence but by his sophomore year left school and bought a house there. He was lucky he had been left enough money to pursue his dream of being a musician. He liked to play slave songs, Negro spirituals, both on his saxophone and his piano, slowing them down or speeding them up at different tempos. One day, he would move back to Providence for good, and write his own songs.

I told him about Croix-des-Rosets, the Augustins, and Tante Atie. They would make a great song, he said. He had been to Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil several times, trying to find links between the Negro spirituals and Latin and island music.

We went to a Haitian record store on Nostrand Avenue. He bought a few albums and we ate lunch every day listening to the drum and conch shell beats.

"I am going to marry you," he said at lunch one day. "Even though I already know the problems that will arise. Your mother will pass a watermelon over it, because I am so old."

Ever since we had become friends, I'd stopped thinking of him as old. He talked young and acted young. As far as I was concerned he could have been my age, but with more nurtured kindness, as Tante Atie liked to say.

"You are not very old," I told him.

"Not very old, huh?"

"Age doesn't matter."

"Only the young can say that. I am not sure your mother will agree."

"We won't have to tell her."

"She can tell I'm old just by looking at me."

"How old are you?"

"Old. Older than you."

One day when I was in his house, I sneaked a peek at his driver's license and saw the year that he was born. He was my mother's age, maybe a month or two younger.

"They say men look distinguished when they get old," I said.

"Easy for you to say."

"I believe in the young at heart."

"That's a very mature thing to say."

It was always sad to leave him at night. I wanted to go to hear him play with his band, but I was afraid of what my mother would think.

He knocked on my door very late one night. My mother was away, working the whole night. I came out and found him sitting on the steps out front. He still had on his black tuxedo, which he had worn to work. He brought me some posters of the legends who were his idols: Charlie Bird Parker and Miles Davis.

"Sophie, you should have heard me tonight," he said. "I was so hot you could have fried a plantain on my face."

We both laughed loudly, drawing glares from people passing by.

"Can you go out to eat?" he asked. "Somewhere, anywhere. I'm so high from the way I played, don't let me down."

I called my mother at the old lady's house, on the pretense that I was wishing her a good night. Then we drove to the Cafe des Arts on Long Island, which was always open late, Joseph said.

I drank my first cappuccino with a drop of rum. We shared a tiny cup; he was worried about driving back and finding my mother at home, waiting for me. He told me to raise my head through the roof of his convertible, as we sped on the freeway, hurrying to make it home before sunrise. I felt like I was high enough to wash my hair in a cloud and have a star in my mouth.

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