She always tried to cover them, the scars of her former self when she was into cutting. Every shower revealed them. As she stood there, water dripping off of her, all wet and squeaky clean and free of the dust of the day, the irony was not lost on her. At her cleanest the scars presented themselves to her. At first she used what was convenient. A long sleeve shirt or a piece of fabric she’d fashion into a cute little bracelet but she finally decided that her foundation made the best cover for the scars. Wiping away a large swath of steam from the mirror, she mocked herself derisively: You’re an honest to God “Cover Girl.”
She’d often feel shame. Ashamed that she had let him besmirch all the pride her mother had instilled in her. But she was a mother now too and full of hope. The kind of hope only a mother could have. She was determined to better herself. Determined to be the best mother she could for Jamal, like her mother and grandmother had done before her. She assured herself of this. Nothing would stop her.
But he had before and she feared he might again.
Only time will tell, she thought to herself, as she walked into the bedroom to clothe herself.
Maritza, her longest friend, was playing with Lil’ J in the living room and whatever she was doing filled her little apartment with his raucously joyous laughter. Renita hastened her clothes on so that she might catch them in action; almost tripping as she made her way toward them.
“Watch this,” Maritza exclaimed, “watch this!”
She covered her face in a peek-a-boo fashion revealing herself to Lil’ J in a playful tone.
“Auntie Maritza loves you, yes she does!’
Her hands moved from her face to his belly in one smooth motion the length of the sentence like a skater on a rink. Whether it was the tone of her voice or the poke of his belly with her fingers, or perhaps a combination of the two, the gestures sent Lil’ J into a fit of laughter, sudden and boisterous, that ended when she covered her face with her hand. And then again.
“Auntie Maritza loves you, yes she does!”
This went on several times when Renita declared, “I’m going to the store now, M, want anything?”
“Auntie Maritza loves you, yes she does!” Her hand impatiently shushed the question away in a bothersome gesture.
“I guess not,” Renita said as she made her way toward the door adding: “I’ll be right back.”
Renita walked down the same street, coming from the same store, humming the same song. She was a creature of habit after all. She was thankful Jamal wasn’t with her and that she had some time alone. She was grateful for the space and that Maritza had agreed to watch him even if only for the time it took her to get back from the store. This caused her to hum along with extra jubilation. Melodies took on another form, she thought, when it was just her voice. No words. No music. Just her voice. The notes seemed more real. More alive, like they had crawled themselves out of her own soul.
It was hot, oven hot, but she didn’t mind because stiff winds blew by her a brief respite at a time. Hot air was better than nothing and besides, she told herself, at least it made the trees dance; entertaining her. The heat of the asphalt crawled up her flats making the soles of her feet uncomfortably warm and sweaty. She was approaching 2nd and Huisache when she stopped and sat on the one bench that remained there. Smoking a Black & Mild, the one with the wood tip, she couldn’t help but think of the stories her father often told her.
In the 80’s this corner was the center of a thriving community with bustling streets.A restaurant here, a barber shop there.On that corner a night club that later became Hill’s Antiques and Collectables. A grocery store over there gave closure to the space bracketing it in as a hot spot of black wealth and entrepreneurship. Her father was fond of calling it: Kingsville’s own Greenwood, Archer and Pine. What the rest of the town called “Little Africa.” King Star Baptist church was just up the street where her grandfather used to preacher and where he fell in love with her grandmother. These were the days of a by-gone era. The good ‘ol days her father came to call them. It all hardly seemed possible considering the current state of the neighborhood: graffiti filled red brick facades, broken down doors and windows. Trash piled up against walls left to fend for themselves.
When she returned home, Maritza had Jamal sprawled out across the floor on his favorite green blanket. She was thoughtful enough to keep the oscillating fan fixed on him.
“He just fell asleep,” she said. His naps didn’t last long so they sat on the kitchen table to talk, music just audible in the background.
“So have you made a decision or no?” Maritza inquired with curiosity.
“I made the decision a long time ago, M, only thing left is the courage to follow through. I don’t know if I have that yet.”
“Well you know I believe in you Love. I know you can do this,” she consoled her punctuating the point with her finger on the table. She continued.
“I’ll help you in any way that I can. Come live with me for a while until you get back on your feet, you know, like we talked about.”
“I can’t do that, M, I told you already. I can’t risk bringing trouble to your place cause you know that is what’s gonna happen. He’s not gonna just let me just walk away from him. He ain’t gonna let that happen. I know him, he’ll make this as hard as possible for me. And for you too. I can’t live with that. I won’t live with that!”
Maritza countered, “Harder than you have it now, living under his thumb all the time? Not getting to live your own life or make your own decisions? From where I’m sitting, Love, you have it hard already! Can you live with that? Will you live with that?”
After some time, the intensity of their conversation subsided.
“Fuck girl, it’s hot in here!” Maritza indulged in the obvious. Can’t we turn the A/C on or something?”
“You know X-Jai won’t have that shit. It’s bad enough he pays for my bills. If we want A/C we’ll have to go chill at his pad. And besides, grandma paid my utility last month when X-Jai and I had that big fight. I’ve got to take it easy on her.”
Looking around to comfort, she clicked the fan in Maritza’s direction.
“Here you go, my Peach,” she said smiling.
“Just for a bit, Love. I got to head to work soon. I was late yesterday and got my ass chewed.”
“Don’t forget about you Sprite and Hot Cheetos, M, you’ll need your strength.”
“I didn’t ask for anything,” she replied. A big smile on her face.
“I know but that’s your favorite combo. You’ll want it later on at work. And here’s you Lone Star card too. Thanks again”
She sighed, her words escaping without courage.
“I’m flat broke again.”
“No worries, Love. I got your back. You know that,” she comforted her with a warm smile. Lifting her right arm in the air, she cocked her left shoulder and gave Renita her best solidarity fist.
Little Renita Jai
She had been called “little” since birth. Her namesake came from her great grandmother, the grand matriarch of the family. She was a woman so important, so revered that her name had been hers alone, kept from at least two generations. Hers alone, that is, until: Little Renita Jai. Her birth was the stuff of miracles. She was born premature, given a grim prognosis by all the doctors in the city. Her parents were told that if she lived at all it would be at a ghastly price. That she would never maintain a “normal life.” Her eyes were malformed though she could see. Her tiny arms were mangled and deformed. The shape a stick of Laffy-Taffy might take if left in the South Texas heat too long. Her legs were bowed at the knees, so much so that it seemed they might have been a portal to another dimension or another time.
Her skin was so dark and mysterious, multiple shades of deep dark bruise purple, it made the night sky writhe in jealousy of her. Her eyes, when they were open to be seen, were a deep eerie white. As white as pure sin after the Lord’s grace has washed it clean. She was the scion of a proud African family that came to Kingsville very early, when dark folks were welcomed only for the labor they could provide. They had settled in what was called “Little Africa” on the corner of what came to be 2nd and Huisache. Her great grandmother among the first blacks to settle the neighborhood on land donated to the “town folk” by the venerable King family.
Little Renita Jai was not expected to live beyond a year. And that year, they were told, would be a year full of heartache and medicine, doctor visits and costly procedures until finally what ailed her would prove victorious and take her fragile little life.Leaving the family with only bitter memories and gnawing questions of Why?
For all that, here she was at age four, a precocious little girl with dark curly hair, eyes a splendid moss-green and a smile as wide as Texas itself. She still suffered the pains of her misfortunes, of course, because miracles never work out as we’d like them to. in life, Lazarus never really rises from the dead, or Jairus’ daughter for that matter. But here was little Renita Jai, alive and well despite all the wisdom of the learned medicine men. She had just began learning to talk, a symptom of her mother’s insatiable need to read her stories at night. All the classics too: Dr. Seuss, the Bothers Grimm, Aesop. When she began to speak it was a little miracle in and of itself. When she was able to put words together, enough to string sentences along toward a semblance of meaning, she told her mother about a recurring dream she ‘d been having.
Mommy, I dreamed of place I’ve never been. I was wearing a pretty dress with new shoes and my hair was up in a bow. It was a big parking lot but there was no cars. It was night-time and I was all by myself. A few lights were on but I could only see just so far into the distance. And it was purple everywhere. Dark and purple like when I look out the window when you read to me and the train tracks go on for ever and ever. I was scared because I could feel something was there in the dark. I could feel something was looking at me. I call out to it: monnstro, monnstro, like I know the name of the thing that’s out there. But nothing happens. Then there is a man who come out behind me and asks me why I’m all by myself in the dark parking lot. He’s a good man, mommy, he asks if I need help. In my dream, all I can do is point out into the darkness. He asks me, “What are you pointing at, sweetie? Are you afraid of the dark, there’s nothing there I promise.” All I can do is point out there into the dark place. Monnstro, I say, over and over again but he doesn’t understand me. “monnstro? what is that sweetie, what is it?” And again I point. “Do you mean, monster? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? There’s a monster over there?” Then he walks a few steps closer to the dark place. “There’s nothing out there sweetie. Look, there’s nothing there. No monsters, nothing. You don’t have to be afraid.” And then we hear it. A loud noise, mommy. A very loud noise like a lion and a pig and a human all screaming together at once. The man jumped toward me and pulled me behind him. He tries to protect me. All I can do is close my eyes real tight and cover with my ears with my hands. Then I wake up
Her mother was rightly put off by the dream she heard. It was just a dream she said. Told Little Renita Jai that dreams are mysterious things that happen to everybody. Sometimes the dreams are scary but sometimes they are really good one too. She consoled her with these words. Throughout all your life dreams will happen to you. There is no need to be afraid of them. She took her in her arms and showered her with affection, somewhat saddened that her precious daughter now had nightmares to worry about on top of everything else in her young life. Little Renita Jai, sighing into her mother’s chest, asked her pointedly: Then why do I have this one all the time and not those other ones?
Little Renita Jai has regained much of the normalcy the doctors predicted she would never have. She outgrew those words a long time ago. She has made something of herself. She can walk and talk. She has friends and even a lover, all those things normal people have. She lives in Kingsville, the place her great-grandmother came to as a young girl. He mother has passed and her father too. She has had a thousand dreams since then and a thousand nightmares too. But this one, this dream, of her fragile little voice echoing in the night, “monnstro,” haunts her still.
A Powdery Nothingness
Genius visibly struck her as Maritza closed the door to leave. She would take advantage of Lil’ J napping and finish putting her make up on. Looking at herself in the mirror, and gently humming the Lauryn Hill that played in the background, she peeled her now-sweaty clothes off the mass her physique had become. She tried to take hold of the fact that she was older now and a mother, not wanting to let her mind drift back to her younger years when she had mad booty. Many more men looked at her then, with desperate eyes, like she had all the power in the world. Even so it was not like she could give over to them anyway. X-Jai just exploded when me looked at her. It always embarrassed her but at least they looked. It got to the point that he’d lose so often the men just stopped looking. Or rather they did look, but they were older now and less attractive. Their eyes had gone from inviting to hunger, plain and pure, like they wanted one thing and one thing only. Fixating on a remnant pimple under her left eye she softly hummed the first melody her ears deciphered.
“Renn?” a booming voice called out from the front of the apartment.
“Renn? Where are you girl.” he asked with intensity.
“I’m in here, in the bathroom,” she said informing him.
X-Jai poked his head through the doorway, his eyes darting her up and down.
“Aren’t you ready yet? I told you we’d be leaving by six when I got here.”
“I know,” she said gravely, “I just have to finish up. We have to drop Jamal off at grandma’s house. Will you get him ready?”
“Sure, but hurry up. We gotta go Renn,” he said with typical curtness. And as was his custom, he let off a sharp crisp snap of his fingers over the operative words of his sentences. In this case: hurry up!
She peered into her eyes in the mirror. It was time to be strong. She had heard someone say on television that God did not want us to be happy. He wanted us to be strong. And that was her mantra the last few months while she built up the courage to leave X-Jai. Could she go through with it? Could she escape her former self and be brave enough to leave him come what may? He heart pumped with great resolve. today was the day. Today was the last day of her former life. Any love she had for X-Jai withered long ago. After the threats of violence became occasions of pain and sorrow, after the hospital visits became more and more frequent her love for him withered away into powdery nothingness like the wings of a butterfly. She could not stand it any longer. Not with Jamal around. She could not take him learning to be like his father. A violent and possessive man, full of jealousy. She was tired of worrying. She was tired of being afraid. And she simply did not want to think about X-Jai anymore. Never again.
It wasn’t just that she was tired of the thoughts of him. It was that she had in mind another. A man she’d met altogether elsewhere. Had not even told Maritza about him. He was handsome, yes, but there was more. It was his eyes, yes, but there was more to him than that. It was the peculiar way in which he looked at her and saw all that which she could not see in herself, like her father used to before he died. All the potential wrapped into her package he just intimated without a word. And it was in that moment that she knew she loved him deeply because all of her insecurities solidified themselves within her, vast and immovable as the sea.