Monday, December 26, 2011

New Year's Eve At Zaire's Place

It’s almost party time! Before I had baby girl, New Year’s Eve used to be my favorite holiday. I would dance and drink until I couldn’t dance and drink no more! (Yes, I used a double negative. LOL)

In honor of NYE, here’s what the ladies at Zaire’s Place are up to. This is an excerpt from Aisha’s chapter.

Happy New Year, everybody, and don’t forget to party like a rock star!


Zaire's Place
(Book Description)

When thirty-four year old Charlene Wilson discovers she is dying, she makes the biggest move of her life and leaves her abusive husband. Not knowing how many days she has left, she is determined to spend them in peace. She turns to Zaire's Place to find comfort.

Aisha Carter can be found at the center of every conflict at Zaire's Place. While she plots disruption, Aisha finds herself on an alternate path that takes her on a course she'd never imagined.

Rebecca Reich was raised in a prejudiced home and has issues with black people. A fish out of water at Zaire's Place, a predominantly African-American shelter for abused women, she is forced to rethink the lessons of her youth.

Zaire's Place explores the relationships among these women as their lives converge, as they make decisions, large and small, that will impact the rest of their lives.

***

“Amy, can I ask you for a favor?”

I was in Amy’s closet of an office, standing next to her desk. She was suspicious, immediate distrust on her face.

“Well, you know, it’s New Year’s Eve. Do you think me and the girls can stay in the common areas past midnight?"

I wanted to kill the girls for putting me up to this. What if she went to the counselors and snitched on me, saying I was trying to break the rules? But, hell, it was New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t like we had nowhere else to go to get our party on, and Lord knows I wanted to party.

It took her a while to respond. Finally, she said, "I'll turn a blind eye." I knew what that meant. She was gonna stay in her office so we could have a good time.

We mapped things out carefully, deciding who would get the liquor, who would get the snacks, who would bring the music—which all of us looked to Rose to provide. We knew she’d have that base covered, considering all the DVDs and CDs that girl had.

At ten-thirty, after the little ones were put to bed and the older kids were left in their rooms, we made our way down to the Happy Room. When I got there, twelve women were already sitting around chatting and eating chips.

“Let’s get it started in here,” Trina shouted, coming through the door, switching her behind. She walked over to the table and put her bag on it, revealing six large bottles of wine and liquor. The orange juice was already on the table, swiped from the kitchen.

“Girls, we gon have some fun tonight!” I said, picking my glass up and filling it with Peach Schnapps.

“You think the ones who don’t come are gonna tell?” Bianca asked. It didn’t look like she was too concerned, because she was filling her glass to the brim with two kinds of liquor. “You know Debbie won’t approve of what we’re doing.”

“Debbie ain’t gonna say nothin’. Just let her keep saying the prayer over our meals and she’ll be all right,” I said. The ladies laughed. It seemed like their nerves about breaking the rules was easing.

“You know, if I wasn’t in this shelter tonight, I’d be at some club right now with an itty-bitty-titty-top on shaking my ass.”

The women within earshot looked at Bianca, compassion on their faces because she seemed sad. On the surface, they were just words, a way to make conversation, but when you examined the tone of those words, you couldn’t miss what was beneath them. Those words were saying, “I can’t believe I’m stuck in a shelter with a bunch of women on New Year’s Eve.” Sure, I felt the same way, but I wasn’t going to dwell on it.

You ain’t gonna mess up my party with that depressing shit, Bianca, I thought, filling my mouth with chips.

Almost like magic, Rose appeared with her boom box and the women cheered. She couldn’t have come at a better time. We closed the door to the Happy Room and blared the music, Rose our DJ for the night. As the night wore on, more women came and we turned Zaire’s Place into Zaire’s Palace—of dancing.

“Ah, shit. That’s my jam,” I said. “That’s some old school shit right there. Monique, ya’ll younguns don’t know nothin’ about this. It’s time for the percolator. It’s time for the percolator…” I knocked my knees together, getting low, singing as I went down to the floor.

“I’m not that young, Aisha. They still play it in the clubs all the time,” Monique said, setting down her drink, singing as she got up to dance. All of us knew she was under twenty-one, but that didn’t matter: it was New Year’s Eve.

Before I knew it, the Happy Room was packed with dancing women, kicking it like they did in the club. I glanced over at Charlene and saw her dancing in her seat. She probably dance like she got a stick up her ass, I thought, still swaying to the music. It didn’t take long for me to find out. Charlene seemed to mentally say “fuck it” and got up to join us. I got the surprise of my life when I watched her: she could actually dance!

She must have noticed that I was checking out her moves because she danced even harder, her body moving perfectly to the beat. It was like she wanted to show me what she could do because she knew I was thinking she couldn’t get down like that. It was workin’, ’cause homegirl was giving me a run for my money.

“Go, Charlene! Go, Charlene!” Monique chanted, moving her hands in the air while she eyed Charlene’s swaying hips. It was obvious that she had spotted her next target.

“Come on, Becca,” I heard Charlene shout over the music.

Rebecca shook her head, eyes wide, telling Charlene no. But Charlene wasn’t having it. Rebecca gulped down her glass of wine, stood, and moved back and forth to the music, which no one in their right mind would call dancing. Later, once the liquor set in, she loosened up, but her “dancing” still wasn’t even close to what us black folk consider dancing. But she wasn’t making a fool out of herself like I would have expected, so I gave her points for that.

More songs and more liquor passed. By the time midnight rolled in, all of us was raising the roof.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas At Zaire’s Place

It’s almost Christmas! I already shared excerpts from Zaire’s Place for Halloween and Thanksgiving. In continuation of that tradition, here’s an excerpt from Charlene’s chapter. Merry Christmas!


Zaire's Place
(Book Description)
When thirty-four year old Charlene Wilson discovers she is dying, she makes the biggest move of her life and leaves her abusive husband. Not knowing how many days she has left, she is determined to spend them in peace. She turns to Zaire's Place to find comfort.

Aisha Carter can be found at the center of every conflict at Zaire's Place. While she plots disruption, Aisha finds herself on an alternate path that takes her on a course she'd never imagined.

Rebecca Reich was raised in a prejudiced home and has issues with black people. A fish out of water at Zaire's Place, a predominantly African-American shelter for abused women, she is forced to rethink the lessons of her youth.

Zaire's Place explores the relationships among these women as their lives converge, as they make decisions, large and small, that will impact the rest of their lives.
 
***
 
Christmas was coming and I wanted to get Rebecca something real special. She had been so good to me, so attentive since [blank]’s death. Slowly, I was getting back to normal, but I couldn’t help but notice the eight pounds I’d shed even though I was still eating like I normally did. Rebecca noticed, too, but I tried to divert her and hoped it worked.

[Blank]’s death had me thinking more and more about my own. People always talk about bucket lists, grandiose things they want to do before they pass on. Not me. I just want to simply be … taking in all the little pleasures of life: the stars, the wind on my face. Those are the things that I think we miss most when we’re gone. I do believe that we still experience them when we’re in our different form—perhaps energy that travels through the universe at the blink of an eye. But without this body, all those things—the wind, the stars—would be different somehow. And I was certain I wouldn’t be able to play Scrabble.

Speaking of Scrabble—Rebecca was getting better and better every day. It was common for both of us to get at least one BINGO during a game, but I would still come out on top, even after I lagged behind sometimes. I was starting to look forward to our games again and even entertained the thought of throwing a game just to let her win at least one time. But I didn’t. I enjoyed the determined look she had on her face too much to sit back and lose on purpose. That look: absolutely priceless.

[Deleted Scene]

ZP staff asked for a volunteer to oversee the putting up of the Christmas decorations around the building and Jennifer took the initiative. Taliyah was thrilled. She would run around carrying a Christmas bulb or a handful of tinsel, waiting for Jennifer to tell her where to put them. That little girl was too cute.

Everybody seemed like they were in the spirit of the holiday season. Christmas music filled the halls from many a room and accompanied us as we put up the tree.

“Ma, I want to put the star on the tree,” Tristan told Bianca, his voice sweet, which was such a contrast to how he normally carried on, running around the shelter and wreaking havoc. Bianca looked at Jennifer, pleading with her eyes. Jennifer looked at Taliyah like she was wondering how Taliyah would handle the request. Taliyah nodded.

“Go for it.” Jennifer handed the star to Tristan and gave him a lift.

 It was then that I understood why the staff at ZP gave us so much autonomy: to foster bonding moments like these. And it worked, because I had come to regard them as family. I folded my arms around my chest and sighed, feeling content as I watched Tristan put the star on top of the tree.

***

“Charlene, you shouldn’t have. It’s beautiful,” Rebecca exclaimed, holding the necklace up in the air and fawning over it.

I’d gotten the silver necklace with its teardrop-like pendant yesterday and couldn’t wait to give it to her.

Rebecca stood up and walked over to her mirror, putting the necklace on, fingering it. She picked up a gift-wrapped present and walked back over to the bed. “This is for you. Merry Christmas.”

I tore into the package, curious to see what she got me. It was a burgundy leather-bound journal with my name monogrammed in beautiful cursive writing on the cover.

“I see you writing on the computer all the time and thought it would make a good gift.” She looked at me like she was trying to determine how I felt about her present. “I hope you like it.”

“Like ain’t the word. I love it,” I said, fingering the pages, which were edged in gilt. The color reflected on my fingertips. I leaned over, giving her a big hug. “Thank you. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What To Throw Away And What To Keep

2012

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago—mostly because by the time February rolled around I had already jumped off the resolution wagon. However, I do take stock of my life throughout the year and make note of where I want to be. I also write a year-end letter in my journal recapping the past year and committing to what I want to “manifest” in the coming year.

As 2012 comes closer, I find myself wondering what do I want to take into the new year? In questioning what I want to keep, naturally, the question of what I want to leave behind comes up. In honor of 2012, here’s my list:

What I Want To Leave Behind

Frenemies
For some reason, I have been a frenemy magnet this year (or perhaps I just woke up and began to notice all the frenemies in my midst). You know who your frenemies are…the ones who throw subtle jabs your way to make themselves feel better than you…the ones who outwardly wish you the best, but are secretly hoping for your demise. Unfortunately, I have too many of them in my life and I have begun the process of moving away from their negativity. You should, too.

Drama
Lord, have mercy—2011 has been so drama-filled for me that it left my head spinning. Drama seemed to come at me non-stop, and just when I thought things were beginning to quiet down, something else would pop up to get the whirlwind going again. Here’s to hoping 2012 will be quieter.

Negativity
I want to move away from negative people, including the negative person that lives in my head. The saying “you’re your worst enemy” became a saying for a reason. I could go on a negative cycle and get stuck spinning those thoughts like a washing machine spins clothes. That has to stop in 2012 and that means moving away from the people who keep me stuck in the spin cycle of negativity.

What I Want To Take Into 2012

Healthy Relationships
I’ve been blessed with a daughter that I love to pieces. Because of her, I have pressed on in spite of all the challenges I’ve faced. May God continue to let us spend our life together.

I also want to take true friends with me…those friends who stick by you when you’re down and out and have nothing. I’ve been blessed with a couple of them. Here’s to hoping I can spend more time with them in 2012.

Prosperity
I’m tired of being broke and broken down. I don’t need to be rich, but I’m praying that 2012 will bring me the financial stability I used to be blessed to have. I want my own: my own house, a reliable car…the basic necessities that make you feel better about your lot in life.

Discernment
This is a biggie. If you hone the gift of discernment, you will be able to weed out anything in your life that doesn’t enhance it…fake friends, financially unsound decisions, bad relationships, horrible business partners. With discernment, I can make better decisions that will put me safely in the driver’s seat of my life.

Well, that just about covers it for me. Happy New Year, everybody! Here’s to hoping our new year will be better than our last.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

5 Reasons Why We're Obsessed With Reality TV

Tiny and T.I.

We have a new addition to the reality TV family. T.I.’s “The Family Hustle” just premiered and it already has the Internet abuzz with commentary on the new show. Unfortunately, I don’t have cable, but I know if I did, I would be sitting in front of my tube like millions of others checking it out.

From “Real Housewives Of Atlanta” to “Basketball Wives”, folks are addicted to reality TV. Hey, I still watch “Survivor” and “America’s Next Top Model” (don’t judge me). So, why are we so obsessed with the reality TV genre? Here are the top five reasons I came up with:

  • A sense of voyeurism – Reality TV allows us to peep in on our “neighbors” and see what they are doing, how they are living and what they have. In other words, we are nosy. We want to know how “Nay-Nay” is doing and, naturally, we compare our lives to hers.
  • Escapism – Many of these shows cater to a lifestyle that most of us won’t obtain…the luxury cars, the swanky parties, the luscious meals that they dine on. “Basketball Wives” is a prime example. We’re in a recession. It’s kind of nice to see people who appear to have no limits when it comes to cash. 
  • To feel better about ourselves – While we like to see their upscale lives, there is one thing that many of us feel better about when we watch reality TV: we can tell ourselves “thank God I’m not like that”. For example, people talk about how drama-filled and “hoodish” most of the women on reality TV are. The next step is to feel better about yourself because you’re different. (Well, hopefully you are.) We watch these type of shows to feel better about our moral compass.
  • It makes a great conversation piece – I can’t tell you how many times a reality show has saved me in a conversation where I had nothing in common with the other person. Reality TV allows us to come together. Co-workers line up at the watercooler to talk about what happened last night on the hottest show. Women gossip over the phone about them. They are the universal connector.
  • Drama – Lo and behold, we cannot forget the main reason why we tune in: drama drama drama!  I can’t tell you how many times my pulse raced and my eyes bulged as I watched the latest cat-fight. The executives of these shows know this. That’s why they purposely cast people who will bring on the drama.
So, in closing, reality TV does serve a purpose. For those of you who don’t watch, it’s a trend that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Don't Weep For Me

R.I.P, Mommy!
I love you!

Collette Isetta Williams
March 26, 1956 - November 28, 2011 

“Don't Weep for Me”

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
(Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!).


Author Unknown

Monday, November 28, 2011

We’re Gonna Be All Right

stay positive
In the end, it all works out.
If it hasn’t worked out, then it’s not the end. ~Unknown

For a number of years, this has been my favorite quote. I have a Type A personality. It doesn’t take much for me to get riled up and get my panties in a bunch. Many times, people have had to tell me to SMAD (sit my ass down) because they thought I would have a heart attack or pass out or something (yes, I get that worked up sometimes).

In my early twenties, when I worked at Coppin State University, my boss would constantly tell me that many of the things I got worked up over wouldn't matter in the long run. “So don’t worry about it, Tynette. Calm down,” he would say.

Over the years, I tried to remember what he told me. Yet, I still got worked up over the little things. I now realize how small they were. Life has taught me the hard way to recognize what the little things are. When you’re homeless trying to figure out the next place you’re going to lay your head, that off-handed comment someone said to you just doesn’t matter. That’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned over these last few difficult years, and it’s been a lesson worth absorbing.

Right now, the economy is still teetering on a cliff. We don’t know if we’re going to fall over or recover. People are still finding themselves homeless with no food to eat. Many families won’t be able to celebrate what is supposed to be a happy time of year. It’s rough out here. As I sit under the roof that I’m still blessed to have because of my mother, I think about how much worse things could be. I think about where I have been and where I want to go. I think about how things have fallen into place to get me where I would like to be. Even the things that were supposed to be for my bad have worked out for my good. (Thank you, Lord.)

That quote resonates with me because I have lived it. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself in a situation where I thought, “Wow, it actually worked itself out.” I am a living testimony of that quote and I hope to keep having it show up in my life.

No matter what you’re going through, you can get through it. No matter what is happening in your life, it is all happening for a reason. That reason will become evident and show itself when you least expect it.

In your toughest times, smile, and know that it’s all going to work out. Smile because you will see how and find yourself in a better place than you were before. This is my prayer for you. This is my prayer for me. Have a blessed Monday. And don’t forget to smile.

"Smile"
Kirk Franklin

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving At Zaire's Place

It’s so hard to believe Thanksgiving is here again. In honor of the holiday, here’s an excerpt from Rebecca’s chapter. And remember…the contest to win a copy of Zaire’s Place is open until December 4th (scroll down a post for contest information). Have a peaceful, festive Thanksgiving!

Zaire's Place
(Back Cover Blurb)
When thirty-four year old Charlene Wilson discovers she is dying, she makes the biggest move of her life and leaves her abusive husband. Not knowing how many days she has left, she is determined to spend them in peace. She turns to Zaire's Place to find comfort.

Aisha Carter can be found at the center of every conflict at Zaire's Place. While she plots disruption, Aisha finds herself on an alternate path that takes her on a course she'd never imagined.

Rebecca Reich was raised in a prejudiced home and has issues with black people. A fish out of water at Zaire's Place, a predominantly African-American shelter for abused women, she is forced to rethink the lessons of her youth.

Zaire's Place explores the relationships among these women as their lives converge, as they make decisions, large and small, that will impact the rest of their lives.

***

Time was flying by. Thanksgiving was already here. I had been at Zaire’s Place for two months, almost three. I no longer counted the days or hours as I had when I first arrived.
            It felt like I had been at ZP for a lifetime; one day here was like one month in the “real world”—the world outside of ZP. The space/time continuum was distorted here, so much so that I felt like I had known Charlene for years.
So many emotions went through your mind at the shelter. Intense. That was the word for it. Things were so intense here, which probably contributed to so many of the women forming strong bonds with each other in such a short amount of time.
I had a lot of time to think about the psychology behind our actions. I felt like I’d finally begun to make some sense of it all. No matter what—the compressed time, the heightened emotions—Charlene was my friend, a buddy for life, both in and out of the shelter.
She was doing better now. At least we were able to sit in the Happy Room again. At first she was avoiding it, going everywhere but there. We would meet in the Rec Room for our Scrabble games, but her mind wasn’t in it. She would still kick my butt, though. One day, I’m going to beat her, I thought, pressing my lips together in determination, feigning anger.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better. I was worried about you. You lost so much weight,” I told her.
We were standing on the patio in one of the designated smoking areas even though neither one of us smoked—just to get some air. It was cold, but not yet unbearable.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Charlene joshed, tapping my arm. “I could stand to lose a few.”
“Not like this,” I said, wagging a finger at her. “If it’s done, it should be done on purpose, not because of sadness.”
“I’m fine, Rebecca. There’s no need to worry.” Charlene looked up at the stars, commenting on the beauty of the clear night.

***

We had to have double the amount of women on kitchen duty in order to prepare our Thanksgiving meal. I was one of them and, amazingly, there were no issues—no fussing, no fighting.
 I did take a break so I could call my mother to wish her a Happy Thanksgiving. “You should be here with us, Rebecca,” she said, her voice sad.
“I know, Mama. I wish I was there.” And I did, but I also didn’t mind where I was. Next year … I can see my family next year. “Happy Thanksgiving, Ma. I love you.”
“I love you, too, baby. Call me soon and let me know everything’s all right.”
“You got that.”
I hung up the phone and went back to the kitchen.
Cooking was one of my fortes so I felt like I was in my zone. Greg used to compliment me all the time when I prepared our meals. He would say, “I get a taste of heaven every time you cook. I’m the luckiest man alive.”
I wonder what he’s doing today.
There was no time to think about Greg. We had a dinner to prepare. It took days of prep work, and hours on the actual day, to whip everything in shape. Bianca had volunteered to be the “Thanksgiving Czar,” as Charlene called it, and she was handling the oversight impeccably.
We rolled the tables closer together and replaced the usual plastic tablecloths with the light brown fabric ones that ZP uses every year. The autumnal centerpieces would do, although they weren’t what I would have preferred.
We decided to invite Amy to our Thanksgiving meal and she accepted. It had to be hard working on Thanksgiving day, I thought. If we didn’t invite her, would she have spent it in that little office of hers waiting to respond to incidents like she always did?
Like an assembly line, we brought the food out, placing it on the tables, one of each dish for each cluster of women. It was time.
Debbie stood up.
Here we go again, I thought.
Shali must have been reading my mind because she said, “Aw, come on, Debbie. You always bless food. Let somebody else do it.”
          "She's the Prayer Czar," Charlene piped up, causing all the women to laugh.
Debbie looked at Charlene and said, "You got that right."
"It's a prayertatorship," Arianna added.
Debbie smiled and quickly launched into saying the prayer—like that would make everyone forget that she always did it.
"She is good at it," Bianca said when Debbie finished. And, with that, Debbie remained the queen of the prayer throne.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What If Thanksgiving Isn’t So Happy?

Best free Thanksgiving iPad wallpapers - Thanksgiving Dinner
It’s almost turkey day. A time when families get together, sit around the table and stuff themselves with the scrumptious food that they are blessed to have. A time when everyone shares what they are thankful for. A time when hugs and love are shared with reckless abandon. *inserts record scratch* Not in my family.

My family isn’t close. Never have been. Over the years that has gotten worse with stories of fisticuffs, the worst screaming fights possible and plain old violence. I never thought we would be like this and I don’t know what happened. (P.S. When I say “family”, I mean my immediate family: mother, brothers, sisters, etc. I’m not married and don’t have a spouse.)

The only time we remotely resembled what you see flashing across the TV screen or hear other people talking about was Christmas 2002 (I think that was the year...I always get years mixed up). I was making good money as a media coordinator and decided to host my very first Christmas dinner. Even though the food was bad (I’m not a good cook), we had a wonderful time.  We laughed, we ate, we watched movies and jammed to music. My immediate family would talk about it every year for years to come. However, this year, my family has crumbled apart beyond repair and Humpty Dumpty can’t put it back together again. (No details necessary. Anyone who follows my blog knows what’s going on.)

Of course, people don’t want to hear this kind of story during Thanksgiving. Even I have to admit, it’s a downer. But, I wanted to share because not all Thanksgivings and Christmases are full of family cheer.

I still love this time of the year, though. I love what it represents—the closeness that should envelop families, the happiness that should surround them. I LOVE Christmas music (my favorite part of the year) and I absolutely LOVE NYE. Before baby girl came along, I would go out and party my ass off.

So, I’ll be doing what I do every year during Thanksgiving and Christmas…not spending it with family. This year, we live in the same house together (which makes things a little more difficult). I’ll see them, but I’ll walk pass them without nary a word.

At least I have my daughter this year. I’ll be spending the holidays with her and I have no complaints with that. She’s what I live for. She’s my joy. She’s what keeps me going. Here’s to hoping me and my daughter break this awful cycle and share the closeness that is meant to exist in a “family”.

Happy Thanksgiving, ya’ll! Wishing you nothing but happiness and joy. Eat enough for me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Zaire's Place Contest

I’m giving away FIVE copies of Zaire’s Place in honor of the holidays! I know this is a tough time economically for so many people (me included); however, this is my way to pay it forward and do what I can.

Because I know what it’s like to want to buy a book and not be able to, I ask that contestants be financially challenged to enter. In other words, if you know you can afford to purchase Zaire’s Place on your own, please skip this contest and let those who have lost a job or fell on hard times enter. I don’t mean to sound harsh (or non-inclusive) but I really want to help those who need it most. P.S. No other free copies of Zaire’s Place will be available, so here’s your only chance!

Contest Rules
  1. Read the first two chapters of Zaire's Place (you'll find them below) and answer the following two questions (I have to be vague on purpose so people can't do a "search and find" in order to get the answers): a) What was Charlene trying to do when she was confronted by people? b) What turned up missing at the shelter in Aisha’s chapter?
  2. Leave the following comment in the comments section below: “I’ve been ZP’d”.
  3. E-mail your answers to tcgalltin@hotmail.com and put “ZP Contest” in the subject line. Please note: Even though you get the answers correct, that does not mean you have won. I assume I will get more than five people with the correct responses, so all correct responses will be entered into a drawing and randomly selected.
  4. All entries must be received by midnight on Sunday, December 4, 2011.
Happy Holidays!! And please be sure to spread the word!

Zaire's Place
(Back Cover Blurb)
When thirty-four year old Charlene Wilson discovers she is dying, she makes the biggest move of her life and leaves her abusive husband. Not knowing how many days she has left, she is determined to spend them in peace. She turns to Zaire's Place to find comfort.

Aisha Carter can be found at the center of every conflict at Zaire's Place. While she plots disruption, Aisha finds herself on an alternate path that takes her on a course she'd never imagined.

Rebecca Reich was raised in a prejudiced home and has issues with black people. A fish out of water at Zaire's Place, a predominantly African-American shelter for abused women, she is forced to rethink the lessons of her youth.

Zaire's Place explores the relationships among these women as their lives converge, as they make decisions, large and small, that will impact the rest of their lives.

Chapter One
~Charlene~
The day I found out I had seven months to live was the day I left my husband for good.   
I sat in my beat-up Ford Focus wringing my hands, wondering what I was going to do. Two weeks ago, someone had rammed into the passenger side and put a huge dent in my baby, leaving scrapes that ruined the hunter-green paint. I wasn’t hurt, thank God. Just a little shook up. I was so busy with my job at the food bank that I hadn’t had time to get her repaired. Too late now.
What good is getting a goddamn car fixed if you’re going to die before the car? I thought. My problem was bigger than a banged up car. The tears welled up in my eyes but I fought to hold them back.
Call me a sensitive soul. Anything could start the waterworks: a romantic movie that tugged at my heartstrings, premenstrual hormones that wreaked havoc on my emotions—all brought me to tears at one point or another. This was the time when I really should let myself cry, yet there I was trying to stop the flow of tears that threatened to break free.
That’s just like you, Charlene. Ass backwards. Just like mama always used to say.
            “God, why me!” I shouted, banging the steering wheel. Anyone passing by would have thought I had gone mad, but I didn’t care. I hit the steering wheel again, this time so hard that my hand ached.
“I’ve been dealt a shitty hand all my life and now this,” I wailed, staring at the ceiling of the car. “It figures.”
When I was nineteen, I went to one of those fortune tellers in the mall—just for fun. About two minutes into the reading she pulled out the Death card.
“That doesn’t look good,” I joked, trying to make light of the frightened look on her face because, naturally, I didn’t believe in such things. She didn’t smile. Because of her seriousness, fear gripped me and I took a closer look at the card. A hooded skeleton, which I assumed was Death, was riding on a horse to an unknown destination.
The fortune teller regained her composure. With her heavy Latino accent, she said, “Sometimes death is a new beginning” and went on with her reading.
That was fifteen years ago. And to think I had laughed in her face.
                There was no controlling the tears now; they came in a deluge of water. Like the dam that broke during Hurricane Katrina, my tears came long and hard. The Grim Reaper was coming to get me. I was the object he was riding toward, the object he would claim. And I wasn’t going to be able to escape.
“Charlene, I’m so sorry to have to tell you this,” Dr. Sheresh’s words played again in my mind.
Why are his hands shaking? I should be the one trembling. Anytime a doctor starts off with those words, you know it’s not going to be good.
I couldn’t look at him. Instead, my eyes darted around his sterile office, the office I had come to for three years. Not wanting to process his words, I stared at his brown skin, skin that was just like mine. Middle Easterners always amazed me. It was odd seeing your color on someone who had straight, jet-black hair. So many of them were darker than black folk.
I couldn’t sit in the hospital parking lot forever, so I pulled myself together and put the key in the ignition. As I was getting on the main road, I heard the screeching of tires as someone slammed on their brakes. I screamed and braced for impact, but the pick-up truck swerved just in time to avoid a collision.
“What the hell were you thinking, lady?” the black guy yelled from his window.
“I didn’t see you,” I said, trembling. The last thing I needed was an accident. “I’m really sorry.”
He didn’t acknowledge my apology, and I felt worse. Instead, his glare said what words couldn’t as he sped off, his tires affirming his anger. This time, I carefully checked the street and pulled off. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I wasn’t going home.
Malik is going to shit himself when I don’t come home at my appointed time. After eight years of marriage, I functioned like clockwork: come home, cook dinner, talk very little, go to bed. Oh, and get hit sometimes. Will he call the cops when I don’t show up? No, that would invite prying and he wouldn’t want that.
I glanced at the sky. It was a bright September afternoon, not a cloud in sight, kind of how it was on September 11th when our country faced hell. Here I was facing my very own September 11th, a day I would never forget. A day that I would probably play over and over again in my mind every single day for the next seven months, if I lasted that long.
At a time when I would normally be at work, I was riding around town trying to figure out what I was going to do next. The streets were empty. Only a few cars littered the road. On the sidewalk, a young Hispanic girl was pushing her baby in a pink stroller. She stopped and pulled the blanket off the infant. As I waited for the light to change, I watched her pat what I assumed was the baby’s mouth.
I’m never going to feel what it’s like to hold a baby of mine close to me and smell its scent. The tears came again.
The light changed. Someone behind me honked and I put my foot on the pedal. I could feel the car lurch beneath me; the road ahead was cloudy from the puddles of water in my eyes.
“The road ahead of me is cloudy,” I whispered, repeating my thoughts out loud in the silent automobile. What a beautiful, ironic metaphor. A smirk danced across my face.
I’m going to die.
“Dr. Sheresh, maybe I can beat it. I mean, you heard of those stories all the time—those stories on ‘Oprah’—where people beat their disease and went on to live a healthy life,” I said, hoping and praying he would confirm my positive thinking. He glanced down at his desk, a combination of steel and wood. He was silent before he spoke again.
      “Charlene, you don’t know how much I want your assessment to be correct, but that’s not going to happen. This is a debilitating disease. The odds are stacked against you. The chance of you surviving, thriving, is five percent. And that’s if you’re lucky.”
Dr. Sheresh stood up and walked over to the window that offered a serene view of the Johns Hopkins Bayview grounds. I knew that view well. That was the same window I had gone to when Dr. Sheresh would leave the office to check on lab results while I waited, the same window I would look out of when I would come up with an excuse for why my leg was purple.
“You know me, Dr. Sheresh, I’m a klutz. I banged it on my desk at work,” I remember telling him a long time ago with a wide, but tense, grin. He would pause and stare at me, but I would switch the subject, talk about my cholesterol level or something.
Seven months. That’s all I have.
I felt like I was suffocating, so I rolled down the car window a little more. That’s when I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. My dark brown eyes were puffy, red. I could see the small veins splattered across them. I never thought a black person could look pale, but when I saw myself, my caramel-colored skin looked lifeless, washed out, ashen. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the news.
“I’m going to die,” I whispered.
Someone honked at me again and I realized the light had changed. I looked in the rearview mirror, but instead of gunning the gas, I gave the yuppie the finger. Held it up long enough to make sure he could see it jabbing the air up and down. I took my time putting my foot on the accelerator and watched him frown.
Oh, so you’re all big and bad in this car, Charlene. If there’s anyone you should tell to go fuck himself, it’s Malik.
“Go fuck yourself, Malik!” I hissed.
The sound of my voice bounced around the car and it felt good, even though I knew I would never utter those words to his face. Malik was big, black—someone people didn’t dare mess with. Me included. His one hundred ninety-five pounds complemented my large frame well. That’s what all my friends said when we first hooked up.
“Girl, that man look good,” Aikisha said with a smile, letting the words drag out. “I know you ain’t gonna let that one go.”
“You’d best believe that,” the twenty-six-year-old version of me said, putting my hands on my hips as my body swayed, proclaiming that Malik was mine. I just didn’t know what I was getting.
The good feeling I had after telling Malik to go fuck himself was gone as I thought of Aikisha. Malik had told me he didn’t want me hanging around her anymore, said she was a bad influence. So, what did I do? I let her go. It was a slow process. It started with me getting peeved at the little things she did that bothered me, things that never would have gotten on my nerves B.M.—Before Malik. It wasn’t long before I reached Malik’s conclusion: Aikisha was no good for me.
“It’s because of Malik, isn’t it?” Aikisha yelled in my ear. Her husky voice sounded more like a man’s as she shouted at me. She was so loud that I had to move the phone away from my ear.
“Aikisha, we’re too grown to be going clubbing all the time.” We were twenty-nine. “Only hoppers go out so much, girl. We have homes to take care of. You have children. Don’t you think it’s time for us to grow up?”
“I am grown. That’s why I don’t let no man control me,” she said, pausing like she was waiting for me to react, but I wasn’t going to go there with her. She continued her rant. “Char, you gotta stop letting Malik control you. Since when did it become so wrong to have a little fun, to let your hair down? We’re professional women who take care of our responsibilities. We need to have fun sometimes. And check it, he don’t even want you to go shopping with me.”
      “Come on, Aikisha, you know that’s not true.” I heard footsteps. Malik was coming. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ll call you soon, okay.”
“Don’t do this to me,” she threatened. “You’re not going to call, Charlene. When you hang up this phone, you aren’t gonna ever call me again. I can hear it in your voice. We’ve been friends way too long to let him come between us.”
“I’m not letting him come between us. Maybe we just grew apart, Aikisha,” I said, voice low. She was quiet for a moment. Was she crying?
“Bye, Charlene.”
“Bye.” I hung up the phone.
She was right. I didn’t call again.
As I rode through the streets of Baltimore, visions of Aikisha’s long, silky brown hair came to mind. Her skin was so light that all the kids called her “Whitey.” She had the kind of personality that endeared her to everyone, even the haters, because she was always so down-to-earth, so friendly. She was the one who approached me first in elementary school. What would Aikisha say now that I was dying? What would she say now that I was getting rid of Malik? There was no way for me to find out. After the day I “lost” her number, she never bothered calling me again.
God, I missed her. I felt a dull ache well up in my chest. I had tried not to think of her over the years, tried to put her out of my mind somehow. She was the only one who stood with me when we began to see the signs that Malik was waving in front of us. Even though I told her I wasn’t choosing Malik over her, that was exactly what I had done. Aikisha was gone out of force and Malik would be gone out of choice—a decision I was consciously making.
I felt the sudden urge to go to the bathroom and scanned the area. Nothing was in sight. I thought about the plight of the public restroom, how you could never find a joint to take a piss in. It was either, “You have to be a customer, ma’am,” which was usually uttered by an arrogant maître d', or, “We don’t have public restrooms,” muttered by a man with a foreign accent. The urge, since there was nothing in sight, increased even more, of course. In my thirty-four years, I had learned that the urge to pee was directly proportionate to how far away you were from a bathroom. The further away you were, the more you had to take a piss.
I sighed, drove a little further. Burger King was on my right on Pulaski Highway. I turned the steering wheel abruptly and pulled into the parking lot. When I got out of the car, I noticed a man sitting in a big white truck, his company’s logo displayed in red letters, parked next to me. He was chomping down on a burger and I felt like I wanted to puke. Not because he was big and sloppy, but because I found the idea of food repulsive at the moment, which wasn’t typical of me. I could throw down when it came to food. The dude’s big belly peeped out from the bottom of his stained T-shirt.
“How you doin’?” He smiled at me.
      “Fine,” I said crisply, pulling my sunglasses down as I walked to the entrance.
I straightened my back and walked purposefully toward the restroom. I knew that if the cashiers sensed any hesitation, any lack of confidence, they would out me—begin to question me and say that only customers could use their restrooms. I sighed when I got to the back, where I spotted the welcoming symbol of a woman.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Only customers can use the restroom.”
My hand was on the doorknob. Damn. I almost made it.
I turned in the direction of the intrusive voice. The young girl had to be seventeen or so, a broom in her hand, poised to clean the area.
Not today. I’ll be damned if I have to go through all this drama for the right to fucking pee.
 For a second, I stood frozen. Then I turned the doorknob, went in and locked the door.
When I saw my image directly across from me, I was taken aback. I stopped and stared in the mirror of the one-stalled bathroom. With the exception of the wild eyes because of the run-in with the cleaning girl, I looked like Charlene. There was the black hair that came to the end of my neck, which was pulled into a tight ponytail. I gazed into my dark brown eyes, glanced at the moles that sat on my brown cheeks like miniature mountains. It was a disheveled image of me, but it was me nonetheless. I didn’t look like I was going to die, like I had seven months to live. But the fact remained … I was going to die.
“We all gotta die from something,” I once told Malik, as I put the spicy French fries to my mouth. He smiled and reiterated the fact that I was “clogging my arteries.” I ignored him and continued to pile the thick potatoes in my mouth. That was on our fourth or fifth date when I had gotten comfortable with him. The food game, where you were careful not to eat too much at the risk of looking like a pig, was over.
“That mess isn’t good for your system,” he said. “You should treat your body better.”
I looked over at his grilled chicken and rippled chest and shrugged as I continued to enjoy my meal.
How ironic that someone who spent the last three years whopping my ass almost daily had said that, I thought, remembering how much he took an interest in what I was eating.
I hadn’t seen it coming. Well, maybe I did, but I chose to ignore the signs. Like Oprah says, the universe will whisper to you, but when you pretend not to hear it, it will have to hit you over the head with a brick.
“We all gotta die from something,” I heard myself say over and over again. I just didn’t know my time would come so soon. I wasn’t going to make it to my thirty-fifth birthday.
The banging at the door interrupted my thoughts. I pulled my pants up and went to the sink to wash my hands.
“Ma’am, you know we can call the cops on you,” a man’s voice yelled.
When I opened the door, I came face to face with another teenager, a scrawny little guy. His body was rigid, face red.
“No need for that. I’m done,” I said, facing three workers who had gathered around the area. All eyes were on me as I walked toward the front of the fast food restaurant without looking back, a smile of victory on my face.

***

The sun was setting when I pulled up to my new home. I had a little bit of trouble finding it and had to call for directions. Housed behind an elementary school, it blended in with its surroundings. The brown brick building was large, with too many windows to count. In the past, it must have been part of the school, I thought, as I sat in the car. I wasn’t thinking about whether or not I was going to go in, because I was, no matter what, going in. My mind was made up.
There was a huge field of the greenest grass to my right. I looked around again to make sure this was where I could park. I thought of Malik one last time before I opened the door and walked up the long walkway. For some reason, I got the feeling someone was watching me approach, waiting for me. I rang the bell and was immediately greeted by a screech from an intercom, which caused me to jump back.
“Good evening, can I help you?” the disdainful object blared, but the voice coming from it was friendly, welcoming.
“Yes. This is Charlene Wilson. I called you earlier.”
“I’ll be right down.”
The door looked like it was protecting Fort Knox. It sprung open and the woman from the intercom welcomed me. Her hair was really short and curly—shiny—almost like she had a Jheri curl. She was my size, maybe a bit larger, and was wearing black slacks and a button-down blue and white stripped shirt. No heels. Plain, black flats cradled her feet. There was no blush lining her mocha skin, which was creamy and clear. People would die for skin like that, I thought, as she took me up a small flight of stairs that lead into a wide expansive room.
“I’m Roberta Powell,” she said, shifting her clipboard to her left hand while she extended the right one. I limply shook it.
“Welcome to Zaire’s Place,” Roberta continued. When she looked at me, she paused. “Ms. Wilson, I know this is difficult for you, but we want to make your transition as smooth as possible. We are glad you made the decision to leave. At Zaire’s Place, we know how difficult that is.”
I averted my eyes and glanced around. All the furniture was anchored in the middle of the room away from the walls and there were no windows. An old lamp with a dingy, cream-colored shade sat on a wooden end table. They probably got it from a yard sale. My eyes landed on the orange sofa and I had to stop myself from frowning because it was accompanied by a loveseat that had not a hint of orange in it. Malik would have had a fit if he saw this mismatched living room. He thought everything needed to match. As a matter of fact, he was obsessive about it, which often made him buy things in sets to avoid having to think about what would go together. After years of being with him, I’d developed that same kind of matchy-matchy outlook.
“I am, too. I’m glad I made the decision to leave,” I said, checking out the woman sitting on the sofa. She was rocking her toddler and her eyes seemed dead, shell-shocked, as she turned to look at me.
I recognized that look. That was the look that said you had gone through so much that you weren’t able to feel anymore—numbness had set in. I wondered if I would ever become like that, look like that. I wondered if that little bit of a spark I had left in me would be snuffed out, leaving me with not a sparkle in my eyes.
“This is what we call the ‘Happy Room,’” Roberta said, spinning around in the center of the room as if she was making a grand introduction.
“The what?” Automatically my eyebrows came together in what Malik would call the “Confused Char.” When I realized what I was doing, I quickly relaxed them.
“It’s the Happy Room. I know it’s a bit sappy, but a child called it that a long time ago when the first group of families moved into the shelter. That’s according to the lore around here anyway. The name stuck. They said the young boy told his mother that everybody in this room could think only happy thoughts because it was a good room.” Roberta shrugged; maybe she was embarrassed by relaying something other people might consider corny.
I looked at the room again. The marble floor beneath me was brown and black with shapes that looked like stars. There was dark brown carpet where the furniture was, probably chosen so stains wouldn’t show as easily. I wanted to tell Roberta that it didn’t look like a happy room. Normally, I would have told her what I thought with no compunction, but not today. I was tired. I glanced over at the wooden table that seated eight on my right hand side and looked around the room again.
The lady with the baby hadn’t moved. She just sat there watching Vanna White spin the letters around on “Wheel of Fortune,” going from one end of the set to the other.
Damn, Vanna’s still on that show? She had on a form-fitting red dress and looked as good as the first day she started. Is she ever gonna retire? I thought. I guess I should be happy Vanna hadn’t been replaced by a newer, younger model like most producers would have rallied for, claiming that young is in.
At least she got the chance to grow old.
My eyes clouded over. I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to mature, to get old. I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to have my spark snuffed out due to a rough life like the woman with the baby. I didn’t have time. As clichéd as it sounded, my time was running out, I thought, ready to cry again. Meeting Roberta and checking out my new home had made me focus on where I was going to lay my head, but the thought of death came back. This was going to be my home for the last seven months of my life.
“Good evening, Irene. This is Charlene Wilson, our newest resident,” Roberta said, turning to face the woman sitting on the sofa.
A black scarf with white diamond shapes sat on Irene’s head. Every black woman owned a scarf like that, even me. I would never wear mine in public, though. That kind of thing was meant for lounging around in your house, not for wearing in a place where you can be seen. Judging by the way Irene looked, I would have bet that she hadn’t combed her hair all day.
“Hi,” Irene said flatly.
It was strange that she didn’t bother sizing me up, something every woman does on some level. If they say they don’t, they’re lying through their teeth. Instead, she turned back around and stared at the television, her mind in another place. When the baby squirmed in her arms, she gently rocked her, trying to calm her down before she got worked up. I checked Irene for bruises, but I couldn’t see any.
Where is everybody? Surely Irene can’t be the only woman here.
As if Roberta read my mind, she said, “The others are in the kitchen cleaning up. We just got done with dinner. You don’t have any belongings with you?”
My leather knock-off purse was slung around my shoulder. I could have afforded Gucci, but the thought of spending so much money on a purse was outrageous to me. Clothes, at times, was another matter altogether.
“No,” I answered, blood rushing to my cheeks as I folded my arms in front of me. I glanced down at the sleeves of my tunic. The shirt on my back was the only thing I owned, literally. Oh, and the wide-legged khaki pants that surrounded my chicken legs.
Don’t forget the shoes, Charlene. I thought of the vast array of clothes in my overstuffed closet at home. No, not at home, I corrected myself. At Malik’s house. This was my home now.
“Okay,” Roberta said, as if it was normal that I had come with nothing. She continued to walk toward a room down the hall.
Loud voices were coming from my left. Raucous laughter. Pots and pans clanking. The kitchen must have been down that hall, but we kept going straight. A right turn took us into a wing with several offices where the furniture was old, outdated. Coming from the non-profit world myself, this didn’t surprise me. As the program coordinator at the Food Reserve, I could understand the lean times non-profits were facing. The economy had tanked. Gas prices were high, money was tight.
At least they have offices here. I thought of the warehouse where I worked that held a small spot for our eight cubicles. The only one with an office was our executive director, Mark Brown. Roberta stopped at her office and I glanced at the plaque that read “Roberta C. Powell, Counselor/Intake Specialist.”
“I’m usually gone by six, but I needed to work late today,” Roberta said, motioning for me to sit down in her claustrophobically small office.
There were sheets of paper scattered on the desk, proclaiming that there was a lot of hustle and bustle going on. I didn’t see any pictures of a family. No husband, no children. She had to be in her forties, I thought. But she seemed kind of butch, like she preferred women. Although her manner of dress was masculine, Roberta was gentle, kind. When she spoke to you, you felt like all your cares were washed away.
“Let’s get you registered, Ms. Wilson,” Roberta said, pulling out the first sheet of paper from the clipboard. “Tomorrow you will learn more about Zaire’s Place. But for tonight, my job is to get your information, find out what brings you here. Are you ready to begin?”
“Yes,” I said, ready to tell her what I never told anyone before. Ready to let it all out. I could tell there was something special about Roberta. If there was anyone I could tell my story to, it would be her. The only part I was going to leave out was that I was dying in seven months. She didn’t need to know that. I fumbled with the leather strap on my purse, ready to begin.

Chapter Two
~Aisha~

           We got another one,” I whispered to Trina when I spotted the new woman walking down the hall as we made our way toward the Happy Room.
What kind of name is “the Happy Room” any goddamn way? A stupid name given by some little boy who had nothing else to do with his time. And the staff bought it hook, line and sinker.
I wondered what the new woman was going to be like. As she followed Counselor Powell, she held her head high, shoulders back, nose in the air: the signal of a bitch. I could already tell she thought she was the crème de la crème. Better than most. Better than this.
I been here three weeks and wasn’t planning on gettin’ out no time soon. Don’t have nowhere else to go. Every time I tried to get away from B, he would find me and beat my ass into submission or sweet talk me into coming back to him. Maybe now that I came here, he won’t be able to find me.
“Yeah, I saw her. Damn, it’s getting crowded around here. How many people are they gonna move in?” Trina said, wiping the sweat off her big forehead.
Cleaning up after twenty-four women and four children ain’t easy. And that number changed every day, going up and down depending on who decided to go back to their boyfriend and who decided to get help and come to the shelter.
“Look. They’re going to Roberta’s office.” Trina pointed in their direction and laughed real loud. “You think Counselor Campy is gonna try and tap that? Do some lickity lickity?”
Trina is my girl. I feel like we’ve known each other forever. She’s the only one who gets me in this place. All of a sudden, she was quiet and I knew something was wrong. Trina always had something to say.
“Aisha?”
Her next question came out of nowhere. I suppose seeing the new woman reminded Trina of her first day at Zaire’s Place where all of us had to go through the same process. I was thinking about it, too.
“Do you miss him?”
“Hell, no,” I said, waving my hand in the air as if that would shoo the thought of Buster away. It didn’t.
I couldn’t deny how much I longed to be with Brian Bailey again even though his ass put me in the hospital, my broken nose a testament to the kind of love he was ready to dish out. He thought I was using our computer to meet men and picked it up like the Incredible Hulk and threw that bitch to the ground. I ducked, but not soon enough, because the mouse got me, smacking me dead in the nose. It wasn’t over with the broken nose, though, because the fucking CPU hit the ground and splattered, one of the pieces cutting my leg. After that, I knew I had to get away. I got my shit, took my daughter, and left.
“Where’s Stephanie? That girl be disappearing all the time,” I said.
Trina shook her head. I didn’t really expect her to know where my spawn from hell was. It was a rhet … rhetor—shit, what do they call that? Anyway, I didn’t expect Trina to answer. I knew Steff couldn’t leave without telling someone where she was going because a counselor had to let you in and out of the building. The door couldn’t be opened without a key. When I didn’t see Stephanie in the Happy Room, I almost hit the fan.
Believe it or not, people used to call me AC when I was younger, the initials of my first and last name: Aisha Carter. Buster would joke me all the time, telling me that I was nothing at all like an AC. “Ain’t nothin’ cool about you, Aisha,” he would say. He said anything could set me off, causing me to fly off the handle. It took a while for me to admit that he was right. I had a temper that couldn’t be tamed and Buster saw it. Every time he’d hit my ass, I’d throw blows right back at him. When he got the best of me and I couldn’t take it anymore, I would pick up the nearest thing and clunk him with it.
“Damn, girl, your ass is tough,” he told me one night when we was lying in bed after I put a bandage on his forehead. A small piece of glass from the bottle I threw at him had just been removed.
As I cleaned the cut, I apologized. Can you believe that shit? I apologized. He was the one who started it, whaling on me because he thought I had been on the phone with another dude.
“I told your ass don’t be coming at me like that. Why you gotta get all jealous and shit? I told you I ain’t messin’ around, Buster.” I grabbed his hand under the cover as he lay on his back, his other hand draped over his forehead. “The only person I wanna be with is you, but you be acting so damn crazy all the time.” I ran my fingers through the valleys of his braids, touching his scalp, as he closed his eyes.
“Buster,” I continued, “if you keep putting your hands on me, one day I’ma have to kill your ass.” I moved closer to him because I wanted him to hold me, to spoon me like he did almost every night.
“Ma, didn’t you hear me calling you?” Stephanie knocked me back down to Earth. She was sauntering from the hallway into the Happy Room where me and Trina had taken a seat on the couch to watch TV with Irene.
“Where were you?” I asked. Damn, that girl looks just like her father. That motherfucker used to beat me and love me all in one fuckin’ breath.
Stephanie sighed, her full lips twisting like she was pissed that I was questioning her. Before, a look like that would have gotten her smacked, but she was too old for that now. Fourteen. Where did all the time go? My baby girl is a teenager now.
“Ma, I told you I was going to Mia’s room. See, if you woulda listened to me, you woulda remembered.” Stephanie was about to roll her eyes, but they stopped mid-motion. Her little ass knew better.
“What did you just say?” I asked, my lips pursed, my body ready to leap, daring her to repeat herself.
“I said, uh, I went to Mia’s room so I could look at some of her mom’s DVDs.” Stephanie studied the pattern on the carpet.
          “I thought so,” I said, turning to watch TV, remote in hand, searching for something good. “Find anything you like?”
             Mia and her mother Rose had the largest collection of black market DVDs you could find, from the new shit to the oldest shit. And the quality of the movies was good, nobody jumping up in front of the camera causing you to see shadows when they walked by to go to the bathroom.
“Not really. I saw most of them. Ma, I need a perm,” Stephanie said, digging into her scalp with the balls of her fingertips. “My roots are growing out.”
I glanced over at her. “Yeah, you do. You got that kinky shit from your father, the bastard.” Trina snickered, followed by a wide grin that showed her crooked teeth. Stephanie frowned at me.
“If you want me to, I’ll relax it for you. I can relax hair something fierce,” Trina said. “
Wow, thanks Ms. T!” Stephanie tossed her pink flip-flops off and sat Indian style, her knees poking out in front of her skinny body. My baby was looking more and more like a model everyday. She wasn’t short like me, but her body was curvaceous like mine. Not a day would go by that I didn’t notice the firm mounds on her chest sticking out for the world to see. That scared me.
“You need to take better care of your skin, Stephanie. Your acne is getting worse.” My tone was clipped, matter of fact. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her roll her almond-shaped eyes. She ignored me.
“Maybe I can get Ms. Fiona to braid it for me,” Stephanie said. “A lot of women around here call her Funky Fiona behind her back. Do ya’ll know why?”
“Miss Stephanie, that’s not nice,” Trina said, playing the role of an adult, even though a grin was tugging at the corners of her mouth when she glanced at me. All of us knew about Fiona’s “problem” but I wasn’t ready to give Stephanie an explanation.
Mention of Funky Fiona caused Irene to perk up, which was no easy feat. She shook her head and looked at me like I was the worst mother around. I stared her down though, and the blank look she always had came back. Who in the hell does she think she is? I got this.
“You need to watch your mouth, Ma-Ma. Don’t go around repeating what somebody else said.” Me and Stephanie’s eyes locked. From the look on her face, I could tell she knew I meant business. Stephanie got that nickname when she was ten months old because the only thing she would say over and over again was “ma-ma.” I was thrilled because I thought she was fascinated with me, but according to Buster, kids said “ma-ma” and “da-da” because those was easy words to get out their mouths. “They don’t have any meaning, Aisha.”
“Whatever,” I had said and scooped Stephanie up, rewarding her with kisses on her chocolate cheeks. She smiled at me and I kissed my baby again. Me and Buster was seventeen at the time and he had just come over after school to see his little girl. I was a lot thinner back then. Hell, I was still slim now, but after carrying Stephanie, my body wasn’t as tight as it used to be and I had the stretch marks on my breasts, hips, and stomach to prove it.
I have to say I’m blessed, though. Even though I’m thirty, people can’t believe it. And when I tell them Stephanie is my daughter, they say, “No, you gotta be kiddin’ me.” Then most of them start examining my face for signs that I was older than I looked and I would have to hold back from telling them to back the fuck off. But even I have to admit that turning thirty was hard. Sometimes I felt like my youth was slipping away, but, no matter what, I know I still got it goin’ on.
I touched my own braids, checking to see how much new growth was there. I had gotten them put in way before me and Stephanie came to the shelter. Micro-minis. In the hood, you could always find someone to keep your head in tip-top shape. No matter where I moved, where I went, I always made friends with the girls who did hair. Those friendships came in handy.
Back to Buster. I can’t believe I stayed with that motherfucker for fourteen years. That’s a goddamn marriage! It was off and on most of the time. I’d leave him whenever the hitting got out of hand. During our breakup times I had only been with one other man ’cause I was stuck on Buster’s high-yellow ass. Yep, him and Stephanie looked just alike—the only difference was their complexions. Stephanie was brown-skinned like me but tall like her dad.
“Fiona got a lot of heads to do. How much she charge again?” I asked Stephanie.
“She said she could do it for ten.” Stephanie looked eager as she waited for my response. Hope was in her face, but that disappeared when she heard my answer.
“I ain’t got ten dollars. If I had some money, do you think we would be in here?”
            I knew Fiona’s price was reasonable. Getting braids would normally set somebody back two hundred, maybe two-fifty, “in the real world.” Plus, Fiona put a hurting on the heads around here and only charged ten bucks. We couldn’t beat that shit with a baseball bat. But I didn’t have ten dollars. I felt bad for not having the money and also for jumping on Stephanie the way I did. I tried to focus on the women arguing over some man on a reality show, but that didn’t help.
“Sometimes Fiona waives the fee, Stephanie. Just ask her if there’s anything you can do for her. You know, run an errand or something. She’s pretty reasonable.” Trina’s voice was soft, like she wanted to make everything better. For someone who didn’t have kids, she was good … real good, and I felt worse.
I stole a look at my daughter out of the corner of my eye. Like me, her eyes were focused on the twenty-seven inch television, glazed over, in another world. That girl got my eyes, I thought, as I remembered all the times the kids would tease me for having eyes “like a Chink”—small, squinty. I’ve grown to love my eyes. Now I think they’re exotic.
Irene’s little girl yawned and stretched out her chubby arms, eyes wide as she went from being asleep one minute to wide awake the next. She looked around at everyone in the living room. When she saw me, she smiled.
“Hey, baby girl,” I cooed and moved in closer, taking her fingers in mine.
I remembered when Steff was that young, when she couldn’t back-talk me. Little Lu-Lu smiled again; this time dribble escaped the corner of her mouth. Lucy was her real name but Stephanie had started calling her Lu-Lu, and everyone else followed suit. Maybe Lu-Lu always smiled at me because the bandage that was plastered over my broken nose looked funny or something.
“I’m going back up to Mia’s room.” Stephanie huffed and got up from the sofa, her raspberry-scented body lotion floating past me as she left the Happy Room. I didn’t feel so happy.

                                                      ***

Me and Buster are standing in front of the priest, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. He has on a black tuxedo, and his cornrows are fresh, sideburns shaved to perfection. I smile again as the sun hits my skin, making me feel warm. I feel like I’m glowing in my lacy, white dress, and nothing can beat that feeling. My grip tightens on the floral bouquet full of pink and white carnations with baby’s breath wrapped around them. I inhale deeply, wanting to remember the scents forever.
“Do you, Aisha Carter, take Brian Bailey to be your lawfully wedded hus—” I want the priest to get it over with. I say “I do” before he can finish his last word.
           “Do you, Brian Bailey, take Aisha Carter to be your lawfully wedded wife until death do—”
Before the pastor can finish, Buster pulls his fist back as far as he can and decks me right in the nose. My mother, who’s been dead for six years, runs over to me as the blood gushes out my nose and splatters all over my white dress and I cry uncontrollably.
“Ma, what are you doing here?” I ask through my screams. “Oh, my God, Ma. Look at me.”
Even though the veil is bloodshot red, my mother grabs me into her arms, getting blood all over her beautiful lavender dress.
“It’s okay, baby. It’s gonna be all right,” she says in her soothing, small voice as she continues to hold me.
I move away from her large bosom. That’s when I see Stephanie standing next to Buster. My friends and family stay where they are, frozen as they watch the scene unfold before them, a sea of white chairs perfectly positioned on the freshly mowed lawn. I look out at their confused expressions and feel bad. But I can’t say anything to them, I’m just too embarrassed. I glance at Stephanie and she’s frowning, standing still. Then she takes Buster’s hand.
“See, Mommy, I told you to let me get my hair braided,” she says.
Buster lets go of her hand and starts coming toward me with a strong, forceful walk. “
Get away!” I scream, backing up. “Don’t come near me!”
That’s when I woke up. My pillow was wet. I must have been crying in my sleep.
Damn, that felt so real.
The blinds were open and I could see the full moon outside, which lit up our small room. I turned over to look at Stephanie, who was sprawled out on the twin bed a few feet away from me. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I listened to Steff’s breathing. It was uneven. That girl is so goddamn hardheaded. I told her to use her inhaler. But she didn’t want to listen to me. Said she was fine. Who the hell does she think she is? Jesus Christ?
Sometimes I would force her to take her asthma treatments and use her inhaler, but she wasn’t with me all the time now that she gettin’ older. Judging by her breathing, what I tried to do clearly wasn’t enough.

                                                        ***

“All right, ladies, let’s go. People have to get out of here and go to work. Come on. It won’t take that long.”
That was Shelley Dubois, a.k.a. Counselor Structure, shouting orders at our seven-thirty a.m. house meeting, which the powers that be thought was necessary to have twice a week even if it only lasted ten minutes. Just enough time to get things off their minds.
Today Counselor Structure had on a black suit jacket with a bright red pencil skirt and some black pumps. Counselor Dubois always be looking good, I thought, when I spotted her from the open door before I made my way into The Hall, which served as our meeting room/dining room/kitchen. It was the size of a small auditorium and housed all the kitchen stuff and our tables.
The tables was like those rectangular tables that followed you from elementary school through high school. Except these tables was covered with white plastic tablecloths that had small fruit basket designs on them. The eight tables spread out around the room made me feel like I was back in school again. Me and the other girls would move them around whenever we needed to, the wheels making it easy to do so.
A little island separated the kitchen from the eating area. That’s where all of us prepared food when it was our turn for kitchen duty. Even though the room was big, it still managed to be homey. At Zaire’s Place, our counselors would always say they was “keen on making the shelter feel like home.”
Although nothing could be as comfortable as your own home, I bought what they was selling. It felt snug. I don’t think I’m too difficult to please, ‘cause anything is better than the projects.
When I was a kid, I lived in Lafayette Homes, the concrete jungle. Then I moved up in the world. Left the city and moved out to Glen Burnie. Me, Buster, and Stephanie had a real nice apartment out there. That was the first time I had seen so much green shit—the grass, the trees. The only problem: getting around out there without a car was a bitch.
I didn’t see Trina in The Hall. I stopped in the middle of the doorway because I wanted to go back out and wait for her. I needed to tell her something and didn’t want the other girls to hear.
“Excuse me,” one of the girls said. She touched my arm as she tried to get pass.
Damn. Don’t touch me. I snatched my arm away.
I looked over my shoulder and spotted the uppity woman that I saw yesterday and frowned at her. She backed off, looking offended. I rolled my eyes and left the room, rushing to make my way to the bathroom. I gotta wash my arm.
I turned on the hot water and tapped the soap dispenser multiple times to get a good amount of soap. When I put my arm under the water, I sighed as I scrubbed the spot where she touched me.
I can’t fuckin’ stand when people feel like they can be all up on you and they don’t even know you. That’s the same goddamn reason why I refuse to shake hands. All those germs. I don’t know what they been doin’ with their hands.
It always amazed me what a germ could do. Something so small, something you can’t see, could wipe your ass out. If I had gone to college, I probably would have studied those fuckers if I wasn’t so scared they would invade my system and kill me.
I stood at the sink and stared at my reflection. My scarf was still wrapped around my head, my braids hanging down from the opening in the back. I didn’t have no job to go to so I didn’t have to bother getting all fixed up or nothin’. Counselor Powell said she would help me find something since I had to quit my job at the bank because B knew where I worked. I felt a gust of air as the door swung open.
“I heard you was looking for me,” Trina said, holding the door open with the palm of her hand.
“Yeah.” I turned off the water and pulled her into the bathroom, scooting around her to block the door in case anyone tried to get in. “I had a dream about Buster last night. It had me crying, girl.”
As I told her about the dream, she leaned on the bathroom sink. The fluorescent light made her dark skin look blue and her eyes were watery, like she was thinking about something painful. Is she about to cry?
“Aisha, I know what you mean. I been dreaming about Abdul ever since I got here. It’s a process all of us are going through. They, Buster and Abdul, ain’t gonna leave our thoughts just like that. That’s something Counselor Lickity Lick keeps telling us.”
“It just gets to me, you know? Why couldn’t he just get his shit together so we could be together?” I said. Trina shook her head like she totally understood where I was coming from. “But you know what, Trina? I’m gonna be all right. We’re gonna be all right. Fuck Buster. I can’t let that motherfucker keep me up all night by gettin’ in my head. Oh, and fuck Abdul, too, for what he did to you.”
Trina stood up straighter and laughed, looking like I had snapped her out of her funk. “Yeah, they messed up our lives enough when we was awake. We’d be some stupid bitches if we let them fuck with us when we go to sleep, too.”
“You got that right,” I said, feeling better even though I knew there was still one problem: we have no control over our dreams. I took a paper towel from the dispenser and wrapped it around the door handle. “We better get back to the meeting. We don’t wanna get Counselor Structure all riled up.”
“Everybody, I want you all to welcome our newest resident,” Counselor Dubois was saying when me and Trina made our way into the room. She waved the papers she was holding in the air, trying to get everybody to quiet down. Then she gave the two of us her death stare because we were late. I flopped down on the bench, not paying her no mind. “I want you to make her feel at home, ladies. Let’s welcome Charlene.”
So that’s the bitch’s name. Next time, she better keep her hands to herself.
When Charlene smiled, it was a smile so fake that I felt like I wanted to deck her. I folded my arms across my chest and huffed, my eyes meeting the ceiling.
“Thank you,” she said, pretending to be shy.
I could tell that was a joke. She was probably more controlling than a motherfucker. I made up my mind that I didn’t like her. That’s when I noticed the white bitch was sitting next to her. Two peas in a goddamn pod. Rebecca. That’s the white girl’s name.
I glanced over at Rebecca, her head full of brown, bouncy curls that came past her neck. She had only been here for a week or so and I didn’t like her, either. She thought she was better than other people, too. I could just tell. She had a habit of wrapping her finger around her silky hair and twirling it, almost as if she was tryin’ to make fun of our hair, black folk hair—like we was jealous ’cause we ain’t got what she got.
Stephanie was sitting next to me on my right, looking bored. I wanted Shelley to hurry up so Stephanie could get out of here and take her ass to school.
“She’s stoppin’ and startin’ and shit. My God, when is she gonna get done?” I rolled my eyes, showing my impatience. Trina poked me. “I don’t care if she hears me,” I said. Stephanie shook her head and tried not to laugh.
“Sh,” Trina whispered. And that’s when Counselor Dubois’ light blue eyes focused on us.
“Ladies, do you have something to say?” She moved to the center of the room, closer to us, one hand on her hip. A battle stance? That bitch got balls. She waited. Me and Trina didn’t say anything else. “Well, all righty, then.”
Counselor Dubois walked over to the kitchen island and pulled up one of the tall wooden stools. It seemed like she was going in slow motion as she sat down and crossed her legs at her thick ankles, placing her papers on her lap. It was so quiet that I could hear her sigh. I knew, then, that this was gonna be serious. I just hoped it wasn’t serious enough to last for more than ten minutes.
“Ladies, we got a problem. Some items have been disappearing from the residential rooms—”
“Yeah. Like my grease, for example,” Fiona shouted from the back of the room.
If I didn’t know better, I would have thought Fiona was singing instead of angry. Her Caribbean accent made it hard to tell the difference.
Counselor Dubois frowned, like she was pissed off at the interruption. “As I was saying,” she continued, “some items have been disappearing from the residential rooms. I would like to remind everyone that stealing is unacceptable and grounds for immediate dismissal. When we find the responsible party, we will have to let you go. Do you hear me? I said we will dismiss you. At Zaire’s Place, we respect everyone and their things. Anyone who does otherwise, their actions will not be tolerated. Ladies, I would like to remind all of you that if you need anything, anything at all, you should come to us and we will do what we can to help.”
Whatever. Counselor Dubois, you don’t give a damn about us. I threw a frown her way as my eyes landed on her expensive pumps and checked out her high-priced suit. She only mentioned the stealing because she don’t like nobody breaking the rules. She could care less about our things.
Nobody tried to steal nothing from me. They better not. If they did and I found out, I would seriously hurt them. They wouldn’t have no hand to steal with no more. They would have to haul me out of this shelter real quick and I would be beating ass on my way out.