Saturday, September 17, 2011

Zaire's Place--The First Chapter


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.

To go to Chapter 2 of
Zaire's Place, click here.

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