Authors: Edwidge Danticat
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Family Life, #Cultural Heritage, #General
"I am being irresponsible," he said. "Your mother will have me arrested. Thank God you are over eighteen."
He held my hand on the doorstep, swaying my pinky back and forth.
"You do wonders for my English," I said, hoping it wasn't too forward.
"You're such a beautiful woman," he said.
"You think I am a woman? You're the first person who has called me that."
"In that sad case, everyone else is blind."
I leaned my head on his shoulder as we watched the morning sky lighten.
"Can you tell I like you?" he asked.
"I can tell."
"Do you like me?"
"You will not respect me if I say yes," I said.
He threw his head back and laughed.
"Where do you get such notions?"
"How do I know you're not just saying these things so you can get what you want."
"What do you think I want?" he asked.
"What all men want."
"I don't want to say it."
"You will have to say it," he said. "What is it? Life? Liberty? The pursuit of happiness?" He quickly let go of my hand. "I'm not about that. I am older than that. I am not going to say I am better than that because I am not a priest, but I'm not about that."
"Then what do you want with me?" I asked.
"The pursuit of happiness."
"Are you asking me to be with you?"
"Yes. No. It's not the way you think. Let's just go to sleep, solitaire, separately. Fare thee well. Good night."
He waited for me to go inside. I locked the door behind me. I heard him playing his keyboard as I lay awake in bed. The notes and scales were like raindrops, teardrops, torrents. I felt the music rise and surge, tightening every muscle in my body. Then I relaxed, letting it go, feeling a rush that I knew I wasn't supposed to feel.
y mother came home early the next night. "We're going out," she said. "We have not done anything, the two of us, in too long."
A musty heat surrounded us as we stood on the platform waiting for a subway train to come.
Inside the train, there were listless faces, people clutching the straps, hanging on. In Haiti, there were only sugar cane railroads that ran from the sugar mill in Port-au-Prince to plantation towns all over the countryside. Sometimes on the way home, some kids and I would chase the train and try to yank sugar cane sticks from between the wired bars.
As the D train sped over the Brooklyn Bridge, its lights swaying on the water below, my mother kept her eyes on the river, her face beaming as if she was a guest on the moon.
"Ah, if Manman would agree to come to America, then Atie would see this," she said.
"Do you think you'll ever go back to Haiti?" I asked.
"I have to go back to make final arrangements for your grandmother's resting place. I want to see her before she dies, but I don't want to stay there for more than three or four days. I know that sounds bad, but that is the only way I can do it. There are ghosts there that I can't face, things that are still very painful for me."
I waited for the train to sink below the city so I could have her full attention.
"I am past eighteen now," I said. "Is it okay if I like someone?"
"Do you like someone?" she asked.
"I am asking, just in case I do."
"Who is it?" she asked.
I was afraid to tell her right away.
"Nothing has happened yet," I said.
"I would hope not," she said. "Who is it?"
She waited for me to speak, but I wanted to hold on to my secret just a bit longer.
"Let me tell you a few things," she said. "You have to get yourself a man who will do something for you. He can't be a vagabond. I won't have it."
"He is not a vagabond."
"How do you know? Do you think he will walk up to you and say, 'Hi, I am a vagabond'?"
I trust— "You are already lost," she said. "You tell me you trust him and I know you are already lost. What's his name?"
Henry was the first name I could think of.
I thought hard for a last name for my Henry.
"Henry Je ne
"Don't you dare play with me."
"I was just joking," I said. "I know his last name. It is Henry Napoleon."
"Of the Leogane Napoleons?" My mother closed her eyes as though there was a long family registry in her brain.
The Leogane Napoleons? Why had I chosen them? There were more illustrious Haitian families. I could see my mother's mind working very quickly. Were they rich? Poor? Black? Mulatto? Were they of peasant stock? Literate? Professionals?
"I want to meet him," she said.
"He is not here." I thought quickly. "He went back to Haiti after graduation."
"is he coming back?"
"I don't know."
"I want to meet his parents. It's always proper for the parents to talk first. That way if there's been any indiscretion, we can have a family meeting and arrange things together. It's always good to know the parents."
"The parents are in Haiti with him."
"Are they ever coming back?"
"I don't know."
"Find out. I want to meet them when they get back."
I leaned over and kissed her cheek to show her that I appreciated her trying to be a good mother. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, but the words would not roll off my tongue. I had to be more careful now that my mother knew I had a love interest. I cooked all her favorite meals and had them ready for her when she got home. I even used the mortar and pestle to crush onions and spices to add those special flavors she liked. I got A and Bs in chemistry and tried to hide my chagrin whenever Joseph was on a gig in another part of the country.
My mother waited very patiently for Henry Napoleon of the Leogane Napoleons to come back from Haiti. Every time she asked about him, she took advantage of the moment to give me some general advice.
"It is really hard for the new-generation girls," she began. "You will have to choose between the really old-fashioned Haitians and the new-generation Haitians. The old-fashioned ones are not exactly prize fruits. They make you cook plantains and rice and beans and never let you feed them lasagna. The problem with the new generation is that a lot of them have lost their sense of obligation to the family's honor. Rather than become doctors and engineers, they want to drive taxicabs to make quick cash."
My mother had somehow learned from someone at work that the Leogane Napoleons were a poor but hardworking clan. She said that in Haiti if your mother was a coal seller and you became a doctor, people would still look down on you knowing where you came from. But in America, they like success stories. The worse off you were, the higher your praise. Henry's mother had sold coal in Haiti, but now her son was going to be a doctor. Henry's was a success story.
Joseph was away for a month. He sent me postcards and letters from the road. Each day I rushed to the mailbox, making sure I got them before my mother did. I put his jazz-legend posters on my walls and stared at them day and night.
Whenever my mother was home, I would stay up all night just waiting for her to have a nightmare. Shortly after she fell asleep, I would hear her screaming for someone to leave her alone. I would run over and shake her as she thrashed about. Her reaction was always the same. When she saw my face, she looked even more frightened.
"Jesus Marie Joseph." She would cover her eyes with her hands. "Sophie, you've saved my life."
is first night back home, I went to hear Joseph play. My mother was working. I took a chance. I put on a tight-fitting yellow dress that I had hidden under my mattress. Joseph wore a tuxedo with a tie and cumberbund made of African kente cloth.
"You look like you're all grown up," he said.
"A lot of time has gone by," I said.
"What's time to you and me?"
"Out of sight, out of mind."
"Not your sight and not my mind."
He always knew all the right things to say.
In the car, he told me about how all the towns looked alike after a while when he was traveling and how he kept thinking about me and feeling guilty about my mother, because he was wanting to steal me away from her.
The whole evening was like one daydream. I had never imagined myself in a place like the Note. There was a large dance floor with pink and yellow lights twinkling from the ceiling. That night Joseph played the tenor saxophone. There was a whimpering sound to it, like a mourning cry.
After the show, we drove over the bridge, into dawn.
"I have to go away again," he said, on the steps of my house. "We have to play in Florida. I think you would love Florida."
He took a small silver ring from his pinky and slipped it onto mine. I felt my eyes close. I let in my first kiss.
I did not see him for a while. He was back from Florida but packing to return to Providence. We went for dinner at the Note. This time he wasn't playing. We sat at a table with the other customers. He asked me to marry him.
I didn't say no, but I didn't say yes. I wanted time to think. My mother would never allow it. She would go crazy.
"Let's have dreams on it," he said, "and if you never bring it up again, neither will I."
That night, I slept hugging my secret.
When my mother came home from work, we went on another ride on the train to watch the lights on the bridge. I wanted to tell her that I loved someone. Like maybe she loved Marc, or like she had loved before.
Henry Napoleon is never coming back," I said.
"It's too bad," she said. "I hear from Maryse at work that he is in medical school in Mexico."
"You didn't know? I thought he was the one sending you these letters from all over the country."
She was quiet as the train raced over the bridge and back down to the tunnel.
"There are secrets you can't keep," she said. "Not from your mother anyway."
The next night, after seeing Joseph, I came home to find my mother sitting in the living room. She was sitting there rocking herself, holding a belt in her hand.
"I thought you were dead," she said when I walked in.
I tried to tell her that I had not done anything wrong, but it was three in the morning. I wished that I had not asked Joseph to let me go in alone. Perhaps if he had been there. Who knows?
"Where were you?" She tapped the belt against her palm, her lifelines becoming more and more red. She took my hand with surprised gentleness, and led me upstairs to my bedroom. There, she made me lie on my bed and she tested me.
I mouthed the words to the Virgin Mother's Prayer: Hail Mary. . . so full of grace. The Lord is with You . . . You are blessed among women . . . Holy Mary. Mother of God. Pray for us poor sinners.
In my mind, I tried to relive all the pleasant memories I remembered from my life. My special moments with Tante Atie and with Joseph and even with my mother.
As she tested me, to distract me, she told me, "The Marassas were two inseparable lovers. They were the same person, duplicated in two. They looked the same, talked the same, walked the same. When they laughed, they even laughed the same and when they cried, their tears were identical. When one went to the stream, the other rushed under the water to get a better look. When one looked in the mirror, the other walked behind the glass to mimic her. What vain lovers they were, those Marassas. Admiring one another for being so much alike, for being copies. When you love someone, you want him to be closer to you than your
Closer than your shadow. You want him to be your soul. The more you are alike, the easier this becomes. When you look in a stream, if you saw that man's face, wouldn't you think it was a water spirit? Wouldn't you scream? Wouldn't you think he was hiding under a sheet of water or behind a pane of glass to kill you? The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You would leave me for an old man who you didn't know the year before. You and I we could be like Marassas. You are giving up a lifetime with me. Do you understand?
"There are secrets you cannot keep," my mother said after the test.
She pulled a sheet up over my body and walked out of the room with her face buried in her hands. I closed my legs and tried to see Tante Atie's face. I could understand why she had screamed while her mother had tested her. There are secrets you cannot keep.
did not tell Joseph what happened. He left for Providence and stayed away for five weeks. My mother still worked night shifts. She had no choice. However, she would test me every week to make sure that I was still whole.
When Joseph returned, I did my best to avoid him. I was hoping he would go back to Providence and forget that he had ever met me. He did not give up so easily. One night he banged on the door for two hours and finally I opened it.
"I'm leaving for Providence after next week for good," he said coldly. "I wanted to know if there was anything in this house you wanted."
"I don't want anything," I said, walking away.
I twirled the ring around my fingers while listening to the saxophone wailing in the dark. My mother rarely spoke to me since she began the tests. When she went out with Marc, I refused to go and she showed no desire to take me along.
I was feeling alone and lost, like there was no longer any reason for me to live. I went down to the kitchen and searched my mother's cabinet for the mortar and pestle we used to crush spices. I took the pestle to bed with me and held it against my chest.
The story goes that there was once a woman who walked around with blood constantly spurting out of her unbroken skin. This went on for twelve long years. The woman went to many doctors and specialists, but no one could heal her. The blood kept gushing and spouting in bubbles out of her unbroken skin, sometimes from her arms, sometimes from her legs, sometimes from her face and chest. It became a common occurrence, soaking her clothes a bright red on very special occasions—weddings and funerals. Finally, the woman got tired and said she was going to see Erzulie to ask her what to do.
After her consultation with Erzulie, it became apparent to the bleeding woman what she would have to do. If she wanted to stop bleeding, she would have to give up her right to be a human being. She could choose what to be, a plant or an animal, but she could no longer be a woman.
The woman was tired of bleeding, so she went home and divided her goods among her friends and loved ones. Then she went back to Erzulie for her transformation.
"What form of life do you want to take?" asked Erzulie. "Do you want to be a green lush plant in a garden? Do you want to be a gentle animal in the sea? A ferocious beast of the night?"
The woman thought of all the animals that she had seen, the ones that people feared and others that they loved. She thought of the ones that were small. Ones that were held captive and ones that were free.
"Make me a butterfly," she told Erzulie. "Make me a butterfly."
"A butterfly you shall be," said Erzulie.
The woman was transformed and never bled again.
My flesh ripped apart as I pressed the pestle into it. I could see the blood slowly dripping onto the bed sheet. I took the pestle and the bloody sheet and stuffed them into a bag. It was gone, the veil that always held my mother's finger back every time she tested me.
My body was quivering when my mother walked into my room to test me. My legs were limp when she drew them aside. I ached so hard I could hardly move. Finally I failed the test.
My mother grabbed me by the hand and pulled me off the bed. She was calm now, resigned to her anger.
"Go," she said with tears running down her face. She seized my books and clothes and threw them at me. "You just go to him and see what he can do for you."
I waited until I heard her moaning in her sleep. I gathered my things and stuffed them into a suitcase. I had to dress quickly. I tiptoed downstairs and opened the front door.
I knocked on Joseph's door and waited for him to answer.
"Are you in trouble?" he asked.
He took me inside and sat me down.
I was limping a little. My body ached from the wound the pestle had made. I handed him my suitcase and the pinky ring he had given me.
"I am ready for a real ring," I said.
"You want to get married?"
"But we have to do it now," I said. "Right this very minute."
"Without a priest?"
"I don't care."
I was bound to be happy in a place called Providence. A place that destiny was calling me to. Fate! A town named after the Creator, the Almighty. Who would not want to live there?