Twenty-one is way too young to fall in love for the second time so that mushy stuff definitely wasn’t on my mind when I started to hang out with Tracey – first sharing D&G cream sodas in the writing room and then lingering over chili cheese fries or pizza slices in the cafeteria. By the time the holidays came around, we were taking advantage of those comp tickets that came to the writers’ room for shows at art centers and museums. We were just working, just writing reviews I told myself at first, but it didn’t take long before that wasn’t completely true. By then, the highlight of the day wasn’t going to a free event and mentally composing the piece I would write and rewrite and perfect later, the layout, one I had visualized and got to watch become a print item each week, my name on the mast head like I’d been dreaming for years – it was sitting next to her and finding humor in whatever was happening on stage, especially when the installation or performance was too abstract for either of us to appreciate.
By then, I wasn’t thinking about Brownie so much anymore. Yes, I had told Brownie that I would come back to Jamaica once I got my degree but I’d also said I’d come back every holiday I could and I’d already broken that promise. Yes, I emailed her almost everyday and she wrote me even when she said it was my turn to write. She had her mother’s ICAS code so she could call me long distance and over high-priced telephone connection, we’d talk about the last time we’d seen each other and fill increasingly frequent silences with plans for the next holiday – where we would go (everywhere), who we would see (everyone from school) and what we would do (things she planned to do to me and which I planned to reciprocate a hundred times over). But last holiday, I hadn’t gone back, nor the one before that.
Victor, one of the score or so of other Jamaican guys I’d met on campus who didn’t really seem like they ever went to class but were always in the cafeteria playing dominos, he hooked me up with a construction-type job working for his uncle. I didn’t have an official job title but I supposed I belonged to the Mr. Do-It-Nice crew. “Do it nice already and she come back again” was a line from a General Degree song from my childhood and Mass Aubrey’s youth in Jamaica, but it was also part of his instruction to Victor and me whenever he showed us our next task, always ending with, “when you do it, just do it nice so we can come back again.” I arranged bricks with the precision of margins on the newspaper layout, using one craft to perfect the other. At the end of the first week, my biceps felt like some of the bricks I’d been laying had gotten attached to them but when Mass Aubrey reached into his inside pants – he always wore two pairs, the outer one baggy, with split ankles so he could haul them on and off over his boots when he had to go meet a client or get back to work – and took out the roll of bills and counted out six Benjamins and held them out to me, I moved fast to jam the cash in my pocket before he changed his mind, my pain and fatigue forgotten.
Six hundred dollars in a week?That was more money than I had ever made. I wouldn’t dream of turning my back on that opportunity, especially after Ma threatened me not to use my return plane ticket until she could afford to buy another one. Besides what would I really turn down the job for? There wasn’t anything in Jamaica for me, except to go look at Ma and Brownie and if I couldn’t do more than “look inna dem eye”, what good was it that I came home every holiday. What sense did it make if I went to visit and couldn’t come back to school? I had come here for something and it didn’t make sense to leave before I had accomplished it.
Young bird nuh know storm, Ma had said when I told her my plans.
I laughed. If I’m the young bird, shouldn’t I come back under your wing for refuge?
That’s why when the baby chick learn fi fly, the mother push the nest a ground, she replied.In a storm, every bird haffi be him own refuge.
I didn’t even think about what else her words might mean.
That first summer I worked with Victor’s uncle, I sent my first Western Union transfer: two hundred American dollars paid to Miss Icilma Burton. She didn’t even have ID to collect it but a few of the ladies in the pharmacy come from down our way so I knew any one of them could probably vouch for Ma. That’s what Ma told me when I called her the next day, right after she said to keep my money for school, but not before she told me what she did with all the extra cash that the high US exchange rate gave her, pride in her voice that her son had done good. The next week, I sent her another two hundred dollars and this time she cried over the phone, said she paid the rent early for the first time since she lived there, then she didn’t say anything for a while and I could tell she was already regretting that she’d said that much.
By the end of the summer, when I counted up the receipts, I had sent Ma two thousand dollars and paid my tuition for the upcoming semester and still had money to buy books so I wouldn’t have to study from the one old editions in the library. There was no way anyone could convince me to not go back to work the next time I was on break. Hell, I might have dropped out of school if it meant I could do the construction job full time and still keep my student visa status.
The one thing I didn’t buy that summer was a plane ticket. Brownie cried when I told her.
When you a come home? She asked that night.
It wasn’t a conversation I was hoping to have then. We were in danger of missing a deadline and Mass Victor had asked us to stay late and finish, promising an extra hundred dollars or more if we could complete the job by the weekend. I had left everything on the construction site – all my physical and mental energy. I was operating on fumes to get from the subway to the front door and I’d climbed into bed without even registering which of my roommates was home. I’m not even sure how I had managed to answer the phone when Brownie called.
School starts back next Thursday, I said, not stifling my yawn, hoping she would get the gist and back off. She didn’t.
So yuh a go come for wha, just one week? Well, that better than nuttin, I guess. Nuff things wi still a gwan here too since everybody a try get the last party in before school. Peter and Ian dey yah too so me sure dem a go have a dance or something before dem lef. Unno will probably lef the same time.
I’m not going to be able to come, B, I said, adding, I won’t have time to come… home.
I yawned again, louder this time. The home bit didn’t sound right, even to me but it didn’t explain the silence and the soft sobs that stopped eventually although her voice remained heavy. “But yuh a come fi Christmas, right?” she had asked then, not waiting for an answer before she launched into a soliloquy about Yellowman, an albino guy in our neighborhood who dressed like a woman and who had gotten beat up a few days before, describing the vengeance that had been poured out on his attackers when they were caught, the story probably more to cheer herself up than to keep me in the loop.
I almost broke my jawbone and I might have nodded off once or twice before the story finished but she finally said she had to go or her mother was going to kill her when the phone bill came.
I even blew a kiss into the phone like I always did when she said bye.
So, no, I hadn’t forgotten about Brownie and from her daily calls or emails, she definitely hadn’t forgotten about me but we hadn’t seen each other now in almost two years and there’s only so much remembering that you can do before you want to start making new memories.
Copyright (C) 2017 by Karen Wright
The above is an excerpt from an ongoing creative writing project which will probably be heavily edited in the future. Please do not copy or otherwise share this content.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A few months ago, I started a new novel and shared some of these chapters on this blog. I am finally finishing up this project so I decided to start again at the top and release them to you. Over the course of April, I will share the entire draft here on this page. Come back tomorrow for chapter 8.