Her: The College Scientist
The only thing Junior and I have in common is that we were both born in Jamaica. What happened next is as different as if we were then catapulted to two different planets. Auntie Daph, Daddy’s oldest sister, she filed for all of our relatives so I came here with Mummy and Daddy right after I passed the Common Entrance exams that would have sent me to a Jamaican high school, Hampton probably, but instead landed me in Hamilton Grange Middle School in New York where I spent my first couple of years unlearning my “back-o-wall” accent and acquiring an American one instead. My new speech pattern, I suppose, was better suited for the US history I was now expected to learn and refer to instead of my own. I would say I handled the transition well, even if it made me a little obsessive about hearing people who spoke the dialect. My parents had stopped talking patois long ago. These days, I was so far removed from Jamaica that most people give me a double take when I tell them I’m an immigrant too.
Junior, however, came to New York at eighteen, came by himself as a student so whenever I let him, he goes on and on about how lucky he was that he got a student visa the first time he applied; he mentions but skips over some of the details about how he stood for hours in a Kingston pre-dawn summer morning with some nameless “friend from school” who though they had the same documents, didn’t get the coveted “come back at two o clock” which meant that their visa had been approved too. The first time he told me this part, I asked him what happened to the friend? Where was he now?
The same thing I would be doing if I didn’t get through either. I raised my eyebrow and didn’t look away until he said, Get a job and wait for the next thing to happen.
What that next thing was, remained unsaid but he picked back up where he left off, going back to how his mother borrowed money so he could get a bank statement, how she fasted and prayed so that nothing would happen in the three days until she had to pay it back, although she barely ate as it was so that religious fasting wasn’t any departure from her usual routine except this time she tied her head with a white cloth torn from a flour bag and threw powders into the corner and tied a similar cloth to the tree under which she said his navel string was planted. She didn’t take the cloth off her head until he came back from the interview at the US embassy.
He told me about the two country buses that carried him to this life – the one that he and his friend rode to the embassy and back, united in their eager nervousness on the first leg of the journey, separated by the realization of a widening chasm of parallel destinies as they went back home (his exact words, which is why I itched to write them down before I forget how he had described it). The other bus was the one that took to him to the airport in Montego Bay just a couple weeks later, where he climbed the steps to the plane without knowing who he was meeting on the other end of his journey or what the auntie who he was going to live with would look like. His mother only had a black-and-white picture from when the aunt named Ruby had left when she was a teenager herself. Despite all of that, he said he knew how lucky he was. Here, he would point to the sky and kiss his finger or something, qualifying his luck because at least when he’d arrived, he had his own room, albeit a partitioned space in the basement where the washing machine gave him some white noise so that he could study, because somebody in the house, it seemed was always washing dirty drawers.
I didn’t know if the statement was supposed to be funny but I couldn’t help but laugh and he joined in for a few beats but didn’t continue his story after that. Sometimes Junior talked and talked, like he had to get it out even if I didn’t want to hear. I did, though, so I stopped at the writers’ room even when I already had an assignment, brought him a D&G cream soda that I had bought at the Golden Krust on 125thstreet after he said that was his favorite drink, and had kept bringing even when he said, a nuh dis one me did mean, this one make fi people from farin, T. Me did a talk bout the one inna the glass bottle and the cork whey you haffi pull wid yuh teeth or knock off pon the table edge.
Probably thinking I would think him ungrateful, he’d been careful to say after he opened and took a long sip, but this one taste alright too.
I didn’t know the life Junior described in his stories. Mummy and Daddy moved us all here when I was about twelve and we haven’t been back to Jamaica since and there weren’t many Jamaicans in my Harlem school, certainly none in the part of the neighborhood where my friends came from. There were kids whose families had come from the South, and who didn’t sound as New York as the others but not many with Caribbean background, at least not then.
Junior told his story well, inserting emotion and fear that contradicted everything I thought about Jamaican men from growing up with Daddy, so I suppose I admired him for that too. And when he talked, I had to force myself not to ask him again why he didn’t write it all down, why he wanted to make a living telling other people’s stories instead of his own.
The first time I asked, he had gotten a faraway look in his eyes, like he was back in Jamaica, or somewhere in a time that hadn’t happened yet in a place he wasn’t certain that he would ever visit. We had just met then, maybe my second or third time in the writers’ room, and he was explaining some assignment he wanted me to take and his vision of the story. The subject was a Columbia University Chemical Engineering student who had made a sculpture out of the kinds of chemical bonds that came in kids’ science kits and titled it Liberated!The display was at the Harlem museum but Junior didn’t just want me to write a puff piece on the installation, he wanted me to interview the student and find out how he saw the intersection of his art and his life and how the work reflected his philosophical thought. it didn’t seem like he had written his ideas down, or if he had, that he would hand it over but as he spoke, I could see that he had thought about not just the art but the artist, contemplated what kind of person made something that contradictory to share with the world and whether he could get from viewing it, what the artist wanted to say.
I jotted some of his words on a receipt that I’d pulled from my coat pocket but as Junior grew more and more animated, I stopped and just watched him. It felt like I could see the thoughts form behind his forehead, his skin creasing and ironing itself out as he frowned and relaxed at the birth of the idea and the release of it.
Why don’t you write it yourself? I asked.
His eyes opened up then gave the slightest hint of a roll like the answer was obvious. You’re The Paper’s science correspondent, not me.
True, but you’re the editor. Can’t you write whatever you want, especially when it seems you are passionate about the subject?
He spun his chair around so he could could glare, but a smile had already formed in his mouth corner.
A newsman must never compromise his objectivity! He laughed, his accented voice heavy on his tongue. Come on, everybody knows that.
You mean a journalist? I folded the receipt I was writing on and ran the sharp corners under my fingernails.
Nah, B, he said, swallowing the words almost as soon as he said them, almost like he had misspoke, but then he smiled again, wider this time, and continued. Journals are for ladies. And fi di fassy man dem. I man a work wid the news over yah so.
He pronounced the word like ‘noose’, like a restraint. It wasn’t often that Junior broke into Jamaican patois, rarer still that he incorporated Rastafarian vocabulary, but it broached an intimacy when he did, reminded me of the Bob Marley shirt he was wearing that first day we talked, the easy way he wore his torn clothes like a paradox, one man’s present covered with another man’s history and I knew that I wanted to write about him someday.
Okay, fine, I said. I’m going to make it so good, you’ll have to feature it on the cover.
Listen, babe. A dimple appeared in his right cheek so I knew he was teasing me with sweet words. You want the cover? For the right bribe, it’s all yours.
He pulled his ear giving me cue to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse, then spun his chair so I had just his profile, the little ring of white stubble on his cheek. From this side, he could have been one of the Marley’s, if not Bob, then surely, one of the sons – I didn’t know their names because, again, I’m not really on the up-and-up with Jamaican culture.
You want a bribe? Okay. Come to the show with me, I said.
He spun back around like he hadn’t ever thought about that as a possibility, like the pages containing the story that he had told me had come out of the printer and he didn’t know he’d given me the access code to read, let alone share them. But he was nodding, a slow nod but a nod nonetheless.
Alright,he said after a while. Yeah, me a go come wid yuh but ah hope you know it a go harder fi impress me wid the story when yuh write it.
Please. Like you’re not already impressed. I said, with more confidence than I really felt. That hadn’t occurred to me.
Watch yah now. Gwaan, Tracey, he said, and started to laugh, harder than he should be at my bravado, clearly. I picked up my bag and fake-stormed out when he clutched at my hand and failed to find a grip. His voice trailed behind me all the way down the corridor as I headed to class.
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 9.