Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Zaire's Place - The First 3 Chapters

In anticipation of the re-release of my novel Zaire's Place, I am letting readers preview the first three chapters of my book.

Just as a reminder, I am no longer with my ex-publisher All Things That Matter Press and will be venturing out on a new chapter of my life independently. Details of the re-release will be coming soon!

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, a safe-haven for battered women, to find comfort. 

Aisha Carter—better known as A.C. in her youth—is anything but cool. The center of every conflict at Zaire’s Place, she is hell-bent on making her enemies’ lives miserable. Then she finds herself on an alternate path—a path she 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 at a domestic violence shelter in Baltimore, Maryland. Will they leave their abusers for good? Can they do the required work on the inside that will prepare them for escaping the vicious cycle of abuse or coming to terms with death? Will they learn to live together in peace?


Zaire
’s Place…
Three women will never be the same.
 
Chapter 1
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 didn’t have time to get her repaired.
Too late now, I thought. What good is getting a goddamn car fixed if you’re going to die before the car?
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. If there was ever a time that I should have been crying my heart out, that was it, 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 was crazy, but I didn’t care. I hit the steering wheel again so hard that my hand ached.
I’ve been dealt a shitty hand all my life and now this. 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. When she wouldn’t return my smile, 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 finally 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.
After a while, there was no controlling the tears. 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, so I could focus on anything other than his words. I finally turned to face him, staring 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 folks.
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?” a black guy yelled from his window.  
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.”
My hands were trembling. The last thing I needed was an accident. 
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. I sighed and carefully checked the street before I pulled off again. 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, I thought. After eight years of marriage, I functioned like clockwork: go 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? I wondered. 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. 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.
“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 go on to live a healthy life,” I said, hoping and praying Dr. Sheresh would confirm my positive thinking. He glanced down at his desk, a combination of steel and wood. He was silent before he spoke again.
“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.”
He 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 would go to when he 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. I’m a klutz. I banged it on my desk at work,” I remember telling him with a wide, but tense, grin. Dr. Sheresh would pause and stare at me, but I would switch the subject and 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. Unfortunately, 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, right? If there’s anyone you should have told 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 say 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 better 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 his conclusion: that she was no good for me.
“It’s because of Malik, isn’t it?” Aikisha yelled. 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.
“Look, 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 as if 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. 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,” 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.
I felt a dull ache well up in my chest. God, I miss her, I thought. I 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 parked next to me. His company’s logo was so huge that it caught my attention … the eyes of an insect stared back at me.
Me and Malik needed to call an exterminator to get rid of those ants, but that ain’t happening now, I thought.
I glanced at the exterminator. 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 that 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, pulling my sunglasses down as I walked to the entrance. I didn’t have time for some random fresh man, but I answered him anyway. Men couldn’t stand when women ignored them, and I didn’t want no shit.
 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 there, my body 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.”
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 that was where I could park. I thought of Malik one last time before I opened the car door and walked up the long walkway. For some reason, I got a feeling that someone was watching me approach, waiting for me. I rang the bell and was immediately greeted by a screech from an intercom, which made me 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 led 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.” She looked at me and 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 avoided her eyes and glanced around. 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, I thought.
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 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 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, as if she was embarrassed at relaying something other people would 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 carpeting 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 that day. 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 have been happy that Vanna hadn’t been replaced by a newer, younger model like most producers would have rallied for, claiming that young was in.
At least she got a 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 sounds, my time is 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. That shelter 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 could be seen. Judging by the way Irene looked, I would have bet that she hadn’t combed her hair all day.
“Hi,” Irene said. Her voice was flat, dry.
It was strange that she didn’t bother sizing me up, something every woman did on some level. If they said they didn’t, they would be 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 didn’t see any.
Where is everybody? Surely Irene can’t be the only woman here, I thought
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?” 
“No.”
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.
I felt the blood rush 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 is my new home now, I thought.
“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, that didn’t surprise me. As the program coordinator at the Food Reserve, I understood 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. At the Food Reserve, we weren’t so lucky. 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 today I needed to work late,” she said, pointing to a seat 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 has to be in her forties, I thought. Most folks are settled by then.
I wondered if she preferred women. She did look kind of butch, which would explain why there were no personal pictures on her desk. Most people weren’t comfortable with that kind of thing, and she probably didn’t want to rock the boat. 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.” She pulled 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 2
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? I thought. 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.
I been at ZP for three weeks and wasn’t planning on gettin’ out no time soon. Didn’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, I thought.
“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 wasn’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 toward 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 was my girl. I felt like we knew each other forever. She was the only one who got me, the only one who understood where I was coming from. 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 anyway? That girl be disappearing all the goddamn time,” I said.
Trina shook her head. I didn’t really expect for 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,” 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 would hit my ass, I would 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 walking into the Happy Room where me and Trina was sitting on the couch watching TV with Irene.
“Where were you?”
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 getting too old for that. Fourteen. Where did all the time go? My baby girl was a teenager.
“I told you I was going to Mia’s room. See, if you woulda listened to me, you woulda remembered.” She was about to roll her eyes, but they stopped mid-motion. Her little ass knew better. And who in the hell did she tell where she was going? Who the fuck did she think she was? I was her mother. She couldn’t tell me nothing, not in that tone anyway.
“What did you just say? Girl, you better watch yourself.” My lips were 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.” She looked down, studying the pattern on the carpet.
“I thought so.” I turned back to the television, 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.” She was digging in her scalp with the balls of her fingertips. “My roots are growing out.”
I glanced at her. “Yep, you need one. You got that kinky shit from your father, the bastard.”
Trina snickered, followed by a wide grin that showcased her crooked teeth. Stephanie frowned.
“If you want me to, I’ll relax it for you. I can relax hair something fierce,” Trina said.
“That would be so cool. 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.
“Ms. T, once you perm it, maybe I can get Ms. Fiona to braid it for me. A lot of women around here call her ‘Funky Fiona’ behind her back. Do ya’ll know why?”
“Baby, you shouldn’t talk about that,” 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. Most of the women at the shelter 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 of 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, 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 was blessed, though. Even though I was thirty, people couldn’t believe it. And when I would tell them Stephanie was my daughter, they would say, “No. You gotta be kiddin’ me.” Then most of them would 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 had to admit that turning thirty was hard. Sometimes I felt like my youth was slipping away. But, no matter what, I knew I still had it goin’ on.
I touched my own braids, checking to see how much new growth was there. I got them put in 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 couldn’t believe I stayed with that motherfucker for fourteen years. Shit. We might as well have been married. It was off and on most of the time. I would 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.
“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 ZP 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. 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 grew to love my eyes. I thought they were 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 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, dribble escaping the corner of her mouth. Lucy was her real name, but Stephanie 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 has been dead for six years, runs over to me as the blood gushes out of my nose and splatters all over my white dress and I cry uncontrollably.
“What are you doing here, Ma?” I ask through my screams. “Oh, my God. Look at me.”
Even though the veil is bloodshot red, my mother grabs me in 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. I notice how perfectly positioned the sea of white chairs on the freshly mowed lawn is. I look out at my family’s 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 her breathing. It was uneven. That girl was 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 did she think she was? Jesus Christ?
Sometimes, I would force her to take her asthma treatments and use her inhaler, but she was getting’ older and wasn’t with me all the time. 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.
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 they 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 was 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 wasn’t too difficult to please ‘cause anything was 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, I thought. That’s the same goddamn reason why I refuse to shake hands. All those germs. I don’t know where their hands been.
It always amazed me what a germ could do. Something so small, something you couldn’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?
“I know what you mean, Aisha. 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?” She 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.”
She 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 had 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 the ladies 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. I noticed the white bitch was sitting next to her. Two peas in a goddamn pod, I thought. Rebecca. That was the white girl’s name.
I glanced over at Rebecca, her head full of brown, bouncy curls that came past her neck. She had been at the shelter for a week or so and I didn’t like her, either. She thought she was better than other people. I could 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 didn’t have what she got.
Stephanie was sitting next to me on my right-hand side, looking bored. I wanted Shelley to hurry up so Stephanie could 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.
Like a laser looking for its target, 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.
 “Well, all righty then.”
She 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 it 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 didn’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 had to haul me out of that shelter real quick and I would be beating ass on my way out.







Chapter 3
Rebecca

Dad, what have I gotten myself into?
I grimaced when I rolled over because I felt the cheap, floral sheets touch my bruised skin. The longer I stared at the white ceiling, the more the gray specks formed abstract patterns. A small patch of brown where the roof had once leaked stared back at me, but I tried not to focus on it.
I wish I would have listened to you.
A hot stream of tears slid down the sides of my face and went into my ears. I could feel them stain the shoddy pillow that lay beneath my head.
You told me not to marry him but I didn’t listen. God, why is this happening to me?
“The Lord will work it out,” Debbie’s voice said, filling my mind.
Debbie Mulch was the religious fanatic at the shelter, a black woman with glasses who went around talking about the Lord constantly. Well, how are you going to work this out, Lord? I thought. How am going to rebound from this?
Daddy, if you’re up there listening, you gotta do something to help your daughter out.
If someone would have told me that I’d be here, at this shelter, with all these black women, I would have laughed in their face. Well, most of them are black. There are two other white women and a Hispanic lady here, but she doesn’t count. You were right, Dad. Hispanics are just like blacks. They deserve to be lumped together. You know something? Blacks and Hispanics are the reason why Obama got into office. And now look at the mess he made.
Daddy, did you see the way that darkie looked at me at this morning’s meeting while I sat next to that new girl? She doesn’t want me here. None of them want me here and I’m finding it hard to deal. If this wasn’t the best shelter in Baltimore, I would be long gone. It has the most resources, Daddy. I heard about it in the papers all the time before I came here. And they were always having one fundraiser or another with the support of a lot of people in the community. So, Dad, I had to come here. Nothing but the best for your daughter, right?  Plus, the city is the last place in Maryland where Greg would expect to find me.
I pulled the cover over my head and began to sob.
I guess you’d roll over in your grave if you found out I was staying in a black woman’s shelter.
I wiped my eyes and got up, walking over to the dresser so I could grab the gold mirror that had been “in this family for generations,” according to my mother. It was one of the few things that I managed to grab before Greg came home. I planned on going back with the cops to get more.
Lying on my back, I examined the black and purple streaks of color that circled my dark green eyes. Green eyes just like yours, Daddy. What would you have done to Greg if you were still around?
My hair was splayed out across the pillow, more frizz than curl, and it looked so dry. I hadn’t put anything in it since I came to the shelter, and it showed. Without “helpers,” my hair was coarse, rough, and I couldn’t stand it for long. I worshipped my mousse, and Neutrogena was my best friend, but none of that mattered. I didn’t care. There was no one at ZP to impress anyway. Nine days, four hours, and counting.
I poked at my eye, measuring the amount of swollenness from one section to the next. It was more puffy right above my cheekbone.
In the three years and eight months that I had been with Greg, that wasn’t the first time he did that to me. The first time was a slap. The second time was a few punches. The third time resulted in a black eye. Make that a black eye and a half. And then I left and came to the shelter.
Counselor Dubois, the head counselor at ZP, told us about Zaire Thompson, the girl this place was named after, at orientation. Her mother, Kenya Thompson, started Zaire’s Place after her daughter was murdered by her boyfriend back in 1988. After years of abuse, he killed her, Daddy. Beat her up so bad that her life was forced out of her. They showed us the pictures, the before and after. Now that I think about it, it was probably a scare tactic so we could see where we could potentially end up if we didn’t leave our abusers alone. Judging by the name Zaire, you know she’s black, right? Zaire. Kenya. What’s next? Mozambique?
Anyway, isn’t it ironic that I’m in a shelter founded by black people? Like I said before, you’d probably turn over in your grave.
Zaire stayed with Anthony, her boyfriend, for four years. They say she was a smart woman, came from a good family. Her mother was a librarian and she kept telling Zaire to leave him alone, but she wouldn’t listen. They had two little boys so I guess she felt stuck. Anthony would always hit on her. He was careful not to leave bruises, though. But Zaire’s mother knew something was wrong with her only child—her daughter just wasn’t the same. One day, Anthony came home from work and Zaire told him she was going to leave. Before that night, she always said she’d leave, but he would drop down on his knees begging her to stay. It didn’t work that time.
How do we know all of this? According to Counselor Dubois, Zaire eventually came clean to her mother in the fourth year of her relationship and told her what was going on. It was too late, though, because when she stood up to Anthony and he saw the suitcases in her hands, Anthony lost it. He trapped her in the house for forty-two hours and wouldn’t let her go—tied her up in the basement, beating her off and on while he held her hostage with no food or water. Of course, he didn’t let the kids go in the basement, but I’m sure they heard the screams, knew something was wrong. But they were young, Dad. There was nothing they could do.
After Anthony beat Zaire to death, he called the police and turned himself in. It was a really sad story. Made me want to cry. Daddy, I know you’d say, “If them niggers live like that, they get what they deserve,” but what would you say about me? Am I getting what I deserve?
My body quaked as I sobbed again. I tried to quiet down so no one would hear me through the small gap at the bottom of my door. I went on like this for a few minutes before I could continue my mental talk with my father.
I love you, Dad. Please help me get through this. 
I rolled over on my side. For the first time in my life for as long as I could remember, it was morning and I had nothing to do, nowhere to go. Like most of us, I had to quit my job so Greg wouldn’t come looking for me.
Whenever I felt like I couldn’t cope, I would talk to my father. He died of a stroke two years ago and Mom said he was always with us in spirit, but there were times when I wasn’t so sure of that because I didn’t know if I believed in God anymore. What kind of God would bring Greg into my life? What kind of God would have me living in a domestic violence shelter with nowhere else to go? A shelter full of black women, might I add.
I didn’t want to go back to Utah with Mama. She was too old for me to burden with my problems. I just couldn’t do that because it wouldn’t be fair to her. As a matter of fact, I need to call her so she won’t be worried, I thought. I was sure Greg already beat me to the punch, though, telling her I left him, that he didn’t know where I disappeared to. But he definitely wouldn’t tell her why I left because he didn’t want to taint his image, didn’t want to prove my father right—that he was no good.
I was sure he didn’t call Mama immediately. No. He deliberated. Counted the days that I’d been gone. Eventually, he would be left with choice but to call since he would want to know if I went back home. I bet he’s getting desperate, I thought, frantically wondering what his next move should be.
What was I going to say to say to Mama, though? Tell her that Greg beat me up? Tell her that Daddy was right about him all along? I couldn’t tell her that I was staying in a shelter because she’d be worried sick, probably have a heart attack as soon as I broke the news. She would want me to come home immediately, and I didn’t want to do that. She shouldn’t have to deal with my problems.

***

I spent all day in my room just staring at the ceiling, napping off and on. Some of the women had TVs in their rooms, but I didn’t. Perhaps I should invest in one, I thought, but I was never big on TV. The only thing I wanted to do was lie there on those discount sheets … just lie there and think.
When six o’clock rolled around, I wasn’t really hungry, but since I knew that would be my last chance to eat, I got up, went to the common bathroom and threw cold water on my face, mentally preparing myself to face the others. I didn’t want to sit in The Hall and eat with them; as a matter of fact, it was the last thing I wanted to do.
My feet felt like weights as I made my way down the halls. “Come on in, Rebecca,” a friendly voice said.
That was Amy, one of the night staff who was responsible for babysitting us while the regular staffers left their nine-to-fives. She wasn’t a counselor. Didn’t have any credentials. Black girl in her twenties. Judging by her faded clothes, Zaire’s Place wasn’t paying her a heck of a lot of money. I never heard of a black girl name Amy before. I was used to Tanishas, Latashas, never Amy.
And just as quick as I saw her, Amy disappeared. She had completed her first round of checking to make sure everything was okay before retreating back to her office. 
“After dinner, you know you got cleaning duty, right?”
Even from across the room, I could tell the command phrased as a question was directed at me. I turned in the direction of the voice. It was Aisha, that ghetto girl.
“I did dishes the night before last,” I replied, walking over to the chore list, trying to look unfazed by that bully.
Because it was a new week, another schedule had replaced the old one, handwritten names scrawled on the white sheet of paper. It was so messy that you couldn’t really tell which name went with which chore. Anyone could have changed it, I thought, frowning after I saw my name, along with two others, listed for cleanup duty. I walked over to my table to sit down, Aisha in tow. 
“What? You didn’t believe me?”
I took a seat and didn’t bother looking at her. Just got one of the plates from the center of the table and began to pile a little bit of spaghetti and broccoli on it.
“That’s fine,” I said, not wanting an argument. I heard Aisha grunt and could feel her staring at me, but I still didn’t look up. Eventually, she walked away.
“Ladies, don’t ya’ll go touching that food. We got to give blessings to the Lord God above, thank him for what we have.” 
I didn’t have to look up to know it was Debbie. Her melodious voice, always resembling a preacher’s whenever she spoke, let me know it was her. She could have said, “Please pass the salt,” and it would have sounded like a sermon singing the praises of the Lord—or damning you to hell.
I heard sighs as utensils returned to plates. Debbie’s Coca-Cola bottle-shaped eyeglasses covered most of her face and her high cheekbones brushed against the bottom of the rims. She looked around the room to make sure everyone had stopped eating, pushed her glasses up, and bowed her head. She had on the ugliest, longest floral skirt. Why any man would want to touch her in the “having relations” sense was beyond me.
“Lord God, thank you for this nourishment. Thank you for Zaire’s Place, a place where we can come together and get help from you, Almighty God. A place where we can find safety, Lord. A place where we can find comfort because of staff and counselors who care, Lord. We ask that this food bless our bodies and make them strong. We ask—”
“We ask that you hurry up,” someone interrupted.
I opened my eyes and took a look. It was Trina, Aisha’s sidekick.
That’s the difference between black women and white women. Black women feel like they can say anything, no matter where they are, or who the other person is. They don’t hold anything back, I thought. I wouldn’t have dreamed of interrupting someone I hardly knew to tell them to pick up the pace.
“Lord, we ask that you watch over these disrespectful folk for they know not what they do,” Debbie added. “Amen.”
Debbie threw a grin Trina’s way and she cracked a smile, showing her crooked teeth. If I were Trina, I would get my teeth fixed instead of making people’s lives hell, I thought.
The women were talking, laughing. Even though three other women sat at my table, I had no one to talk to. I was invisible to them, which suited me just fine.
I glanced up. The new girl was sitting at the table directly across from me. For a darkie, she was kind of pretty. Not the natural kind of pretty, but the pretty that came from being able to buy nice clothes, get good makeup, and having the ability to get your hair done. The moles on her chocolate skin were attractive, reminded me of my mom, who had freckles. Without even talking to her, I could tell she wasn’t like Aisha or Trina, or the other ones. Our eyes met and I shifted in my seat, embarrassed that I had been caught sizing her up. I looked down, pretending to focus on my food. Then I wolfed my spaghetti down so I could get out of that room, out of the midst of all those women.

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