By Rebekah Coxwell
She had been sure it was him. That bald head. The confident way he planted his feet about a foot apart. He knew there was no one that could throw him off balance, but he still dared someone to try. His back was straight because he knew he was attractive enough to pick who he wanted, despite the pot belly. Then, the slight stoop of his shoulders that deepened with every wife he left behind. She was sure it was the combination of beauty and burdened man that drew women to him. The women assumed he was burdened because he was compassionate, so they flocked to him, offering him their backsides, so they could help carry his burden before it made him fall to his knees. No man deserved that kind of burden—the women would think. He would plop all the weight of his package on them. They’d cry out: too much. He’d smile: take it for papa bear. They would smile back, helplessly, and struggle forward as long as they could. He would run ahead, looking for another sucker to take his pack, knowing the current holder was nearing her end. Inevitably, the pack carrier fell to her knees. As her knees hit the concrete, she would curse his name. He would kneel beside her and pick up his pack once again. Then, he would walk away, not even looking back. The next carrier already in his sights. Another woman willing to give her dignity to him.
His arm had been around a thick, white woman. That was just his type. Curvy enough to have huge breasts and thick enough to feel they couldn’t do any better than to take care of this man. They had turned to cross the street. He had said something funny. She had laughed. Her breasts and her belly had shaken, violently. She had grabbed his arm, thrown her head back, and let the laugh fly from her mouth. She had held his arm the whole time so her body wouldn’t fly away with the force the laugh was leaving her body with. Then, once it was gone, she had thrown her arms around him and thrown her lips at his face. He had grabbed her hips and pulled her towards him like he was trying to bring her inside of himself. They had finally pulled apart because a car beeped at them. They had continued walking across the street.
As they had passed her, he’d glanced at her and winked. Then, he’d kissed his lady’s shoulder. As she had watched them walk away, he had grabbed the woman’s butt. She had started to chuckle and her shoulders shook. Of course, that hadn’t been her father. It never was. The woman’s chuckle had mocked her from a distance. Ha ha, you thought he was your father. Jokes on you.
It is humid out, but she buttons her coat up and stuffs her hands in her pocket. It feels right, somehow. The drizzle coming down seems right as well. If it was sunny, no clouds in the sky, she might revert back to her cowardly ways. Go to the beach or find a literature magazine interesting enough to spend a whole day on. But it is grey, humid, and there is enough drizzle coming down to make it too hard to do anything but walk quickly to her destination.
She looks up to the sky. The warm drizzle leaves droplets on her glasses. She hates when she gets drops of rain on her glasses. Why did she look up? She continues looking up as more and more drops fall on her glasses. Should she count them? She could clean off her glasses and start from one. She laughs to herself. A quiet giggle hidden in her chest. What the hell would he make of this? Not her absent father, Joseph. What would he make of her standing in the rain, staring at the sky trying not to think about where he ended up?
She looks ahead and starts walking. Black wavy hair, perched on black horn rimmed glasses. The droplets on her glasses give everything a sad quality, like she’s been walking around crying. He believed he was dead and there was nothing after he closed his eyes. At the end, he preferred nothing over emotional instability, and here she was walking to his grave site looking as though, she has been crying for the last couple minutes. She keeps her eyes forward. Keep walking. Keep walking. A laugh, at once, weary and childlike. She won’t chicken out this time. She wishes the water droplets on her glasses would magnify everything she is looking at. It would make for a more interesting walk. Instead, everything is grey. Grey sidewalk. Grey sky. Only her memories have color. She sighs heavily and stops walking. Keep walking. You’re almost there. She squeezes her eyes tight, balls her fists and steps forward. Look straight ahead, you’re almost there. A bright red and black jacket clinging to his body, making her jealous. She turns the corner.
She has done this before, not with Joseph, with her grandmother. She had been twelve and her grandmother had been dead for four years. It had gone well. Like talking to yourself, except you look around and everyone else is doing it too. Some crying and others standing, silently, guarding their dead.
This is different. She isn’t twelve and this isn’t her grandmother. She stands awkwardly in front of the grave stone. She reaches out to touch it, then changes her mind. She drops her hand, then, takes a step back. He’d hate me if he saw this, but this isn’t about him.
She stops after saying his name, audibly. She hasn’t said it in a while. He is ‘my friend’ or ‘Jo Jo’. Never his formal name. Concrete evidence he is dead, gone, and no longer in need of nicknames. She pulls her hood down.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I look a bit different.”
She turns around in a circle, like he can see her. She puts her hands in her thick curls and pulls her hair out to its full length. It bounces back almost immediately. She feels the need to explain herself.
“My hair is natural now. I’m sure you would’ve been excited about the prospect of seeing my hair in a fro.”
Prospect. The word feels too big for her mouth. Like it doesn’t belong there, and should be spit out as soon as possible. She had always felt that way around him, not because he was Vietnamese and she was black. He had just been, smarter. It wasn’t the giant glasses he had bought as a joke to make him look more Asian.
It was how he chose not to correct someone when they said something wrong. How he had made every school project a joke, somehow. How he had gotten grades, good enough not to upset his mom, but not good enough so as to bring attention to himself. She remembered a month before they graduated high school he had said he was going to drop out and get his GED, just because.
“I’m trying not to change, but…”
She trails off. It’s impossible to stop change is what she wants to say. Somehow, she feels if she says it out loud, she’ll realize there is no one there. Realize this whole thing is futile. That the best course of action is to let life keep moving, instead of running back to the past.
“I loved you.”
They had both known. She hadn’t said. Some days, she wishes she had. Other days, she is glad she had not because she knows it wouldn’t have changed anything.
“Remember when we left school and walked around the playgrounds in our neighborhood. We’d swing and then talk about the drug deals that probably happened after dark? When I had that giant baby phat jacket? You used to laugh at me because I was cold all the time. I’d turn to you and say I was anemic and you’d make a joke about my period. Then, you’d laugh.”
She remembered that laugh. There was nothing big about it. Nothing that stood out, necessarily. It was innocent and weary. His eyes full of so many possibilities, tricking you into thinking you could be anything, too. You would look in his eyes and think he had enough possibilities to share with you. Enough possibilities to sustain both of you for a lifetime.
“I’d stand there and pout because that’s what I thought you wanted from me.”
She had wondered, looking into his eyes, what this beautiful person saw in her. He stood out. A quiet confidence, enough to make even teachers look at him, but not enough to make people dislike him. Wavy black hair, she wanted to reach for, and feared, would reject her. Then, his intelligence. It was overwhelming, his beauty. He, was overwhelming.
Then, there was her. Her greatest triumph, had been caring: caring for her family, caring for him, caring for her other friends. It was all the same, except in the times he smiled.
She spent three years trying to keep that smile in front of her. When that couldn’t happen, she settled for being next to him.
Next to him, she started to see the others. The girls who would turn towards him, offering themselves, like she had. He didn’t need to say the words. He would only smile, and she watched as he heaved the baggage, she wasn’t carrying, on them. Then, he would walk forward. His harem walking forward with him. All, looking only to him. Only she saw the others.
By his right side, she felt important, for a while. Eventually, she saw her placement was only coincidental. She could have been anyone. With each step, after this realization, her load became heavier and heavier. It was harder and harder to look him in his face, his eyes. She stopped looking in them altogether. She decided to stop loving him. It was easier than seeing herself as one of his herd. What she missed, after she stopped looking in his eyes, were the possibilities burning out like light bulbs at the end of their lives. Some people have bigger loads to bear, and not enough strength to carry them.
Her eyes tear up. She looks up. Water droplets start to collect on her glasses, again. Why is she here? She should be doing something. Moving forward. Getting married, having some kids, but she is here talking to a dead boy who has the same name as her dead-beat father.
These ghosts wouldn’t leave her alone. She would try to move forward, go on a date, leave town, but then she would see a face she was sure belonged to one of her ghosts, and she would go right back to her usual. The lure of the past was seductive. Warm, comfortable. It promised her it would never leave her, so, she would fall back into it. She didn’t want to realize it was a lie, but it was inevitable. Impossible to ignore. She’d wake up just as the sun was rising and know she was alone. The memories a warm fog that left her feeling damp and cold, like she had walked in from a rainstorm and climbed into bed with her wet clothes still on.
She would ball herself up in her bed with two comforters, a bed side heater, and every light in her apartment on. The lights helped with the loneliness, everything else with the damp feeling under her skin. No matter the weather outside, that feeling wouldn’t leave her until she climbed into her bed and burrowed in. She’d fall asleep and dream of a time before her ghosts haunted her. When they had just been people.
She looks straight ahead and rubs her neck. Maybe this is why she is here. To move on. To throw the ghosts off of her back.
“Anyway, since I’m here, I’ll start with my father.”
Her voice sounds bright, false.
He would probably distract her, if he was here, if he heard this voice. He’d jump up on his feet and start hurdling over grave stones. Running away from the revelation he heard on the tip of her tongue.
Maybe she would do this tomorrow. Tell him the story of her life through the lens of the men she loved and hated, including him. She got up and stared at the gravestone.
Giap, Joseph Nguyen
January 13 1991-September 19 2011
He would have been 25. A year younger than herself.
She stands up and looks at the ground. The ground is the color of coffee grounds. She doesn’t want to look at the gravestone anymore. She feels like a coward. She feels like a ghost. Like he is the live one ignoring her, while she follows him around shouting at him until her voice gives out.
She wants to reiterate her promise. Tomorrow. To solidify it, but in the corner of her eye she sees him pass by. She turns, watching him slowly and purposefully walk by her — as if he doesn’t know her. She reaches out her hand to him. She reaches out to him as if he is within her reach, despite his distance. Her feet will not move, as if they know where he is and where he is not. Her mouth refuses the impulses from her brain, as if it too, knows she is fooling herself.
He stops. Her hand drops to her side. Then, as if getting permission from her hand, he continues walking.
She can’t look behind her, at the gravestone. She knows which reality she prefers. She walks forward. Then, she runs. When she is within three feet of him, he slows. Within two feet of him, he stops. He turns around. She looks up and sees the face she is running after. She brings her hand up and touches his face. Warm. Brown- green eyes warm her face in return. He rests his hand on hers. His hands are rough and smell like dirt. He kisses her.
Back at her apartment he touches her softly, but doesn’t kiss her again. When he climaxes, his eyes are closed, so she closes her eyes too. He deserves his privacy, she thinks. After, they sleep.
When she wakes up, she looks over and sees a stranger. He wakes, as if, hearing her realization. He sits up and looks at the floor. He grabs his shirt, damp, from the day before, and shakes it out. Then, he tugs it on. He does the same with his jeans. Only after covering his body, does he turn to look at her.
“I’m not him, but you’re not her, either.”
She has nothing to say. She only watches as his back, rod straight, walks away from her, and disappears behind her door. He didn’t even shiver from the damp clothes, she thinks.
After he leaves, the rod straight back sticks in her mind. At the grave site, it had been stooped. That morning, even in the damp clothes, his back was straight. All familiarity he had worn yesterday, was gone. She feels cold, but not the slightly damp cold she is used to. A frigid cold. She turns the thermostat up, puts a sweater and jogging pants on, and burrows into her bed. Lights forgotten.
She puts on a scarf, sweater, and jacket on her way to work. Which she realizes is too much once she gets out of her car.
On the way, back to her car, after work, she shivers. In the car, she pulls her sweater on, then her jacket, and finally wraps her scarf around her neck. Despite this, she is colder when she walks up to her apartment. She soon forgets this. Sitting in front of her apartment door, is her stranger. He stands up, when she stops in front of him. He places both of his hands on the sides of her face. Cigarettes and mulch. She closes her eyes and breaths it in. His eyes are closed, she knows this, but she still kisses him back. She forgot long ago what his kiss felt like. Smelled like. But she imagines it is this. Hot and against cold lips, smelling of fresh cigarettes and mulch. She leans into him. This kiss.
When he is inside of her, she closes her eyes and dreams of Joseph. They orgasm together. Her eyes flutter open when she feels a drop of rain on her face. He looks away, then flips over on his side and shakes, silently. She lays on her back next to him. She bites her lip to keep herself from touching him. She turns on her side, and pretends to sleep. This is not a love story. This is not her lost love come back from the dead. She is alone, and so is he.
When he is done crying and either sleeping or pretending to sleep, she slips out of her bed and goes to the bathroom. She sits on the toilet. Then, thinks better of it and goes over to the tub. She turns on the water. Then sits on the toilet once again. She puts her hands over her eyes, takes a deep breath, and lets the tears come with the exhale.
When she is finished, she turns the water off. She gets into the tub. It is hot, but she immediately sits down. She turns her foot in the water and watches the bottom of it turn pink. She feels his presence. He places his hand on her back. She moves forward in the tub, giving him room. He sits behind her, making the water rise. She settles between his legs. He wraps his arms around her. She feels his thighs around her body and imagines this happened with Joseph. She wants to believe she is reenacting events they did together. She closes her eyes. He kisses the back of her neck, she shivers. His lips are cooler then her body.
“You looked like her standing there. That’s why I stopped. I knew it wasn’t her but, you just looked so much like her, I couldn’t help myself.”
She says nothing. If she doesn’t acknowledge that he is a ghost he will go back to being flesh and blood. She says nothing. He doesn’t say any more. He only holds her.
The next morning, she wakes up cold. She rolls out of bed and grabs her shirt from the night before. She pulls it on. The goose bumps on her breasts and thighs hurt. She opens a drawer and pulls out pants, another drawer and pulls out socks. She pulls them on, and then jumps into bed. She rolls over and turns on the space heater next to her bed. She rubs her legs to warm herself up. Then she pulls the covers around herself. All of this, before realizing he is gone.
It is two weeks before she sees him again. She comes home, every day, expecting to see him crouched and waiting in front of her apartment. She stops and looks around every time she smells cigarettes.
At night, it is stifling; so humid she throws her comforter on the floor. She reaches over to the other side of the bed to turn off her space heater. She strips off all of her clothes and lays on her back, arms and legs spread apart. Waiting, for the heat to release her, so she can drift to sleep. Most nights, she lays in bed, awake, and missing her ghost.
On the fifteenth day, she feels him everywhere: In the puff of cigarette smoke she breaths in while sitting in traffic, in the newly tended flower bed outside of her diner, and in every male customer she waits on when she first lays eyes on them. On the way home, she stops looking.
That night she lays, like every night. On her back, legs and arms spread, waiting. She sleeps.
She is in a dark room. She looks down at her hands and sees they are not her hands; they are his, Joseph’s, hands. Then, a feeling. Tugging. Warm at her crotch. Then warmth spreading throughout her body. She looks down and sees herself. Or Joseph in her body? Her face smiles at her over his dick and she hates herself. She hates the face taking the penis inside her mouth. She wants to slap that face. Then, a knock.
She wakes up. Startled. Her nakedness forgotten. Only fear with a dash of contempt stuck in the back of her throat.
She opens the door to the syrup-acid smell of liquor mixed with the smell of a freshly smoked cigarette. Where is the mulch?
He stumbles in. With him comes a chill that tickles up her spine and hardens her nipples. He catches himself, as he falls into her apartment, and grabs her in one movement. Instead of falling on top of her, he holds her as if he has intentionally dipped her. She kisses him. They stumble into bed. She helps him take his clothes off.
He whispers “, I love you. I forgive you.”
She thinks, what has his ghost done? Then, she closes her eyes and dreams of wavy black hair and a warm kiss that smells of cigarettes and mulch. He could never hate her and love her like this. He could never look at her with such disgust and touch her body so softly. She is sure. Her throat burns, in protest. Her eyes give tears, as evidence of her lie.
She opens her eyes, feeling tears that don’t belong to her. Their eyes meet. She sees his eyes are grey. How had she seen brown and green? He refuses to look away from her.
She has no idea what reprieve he is looking for. What words she can put together to relieve him. So she speaks to her ghost. She speaks the guilt she has held for refusing to look him in the eye.
“No. The thing you used to say when I was drunk and sad.”
This isn’t her ghost. She is in bed with the body her ghost inhabited. She is in bed with a stranger. The bedroom is humid. Stifling. Where is her cool breeze? The chill in the air? She is suffocating.
He rolls off of her and sits by the side of the bed. He pulls his shirt on. Then he picks up his pants and puts them on as well.
When had he gotten so lean, she thinks. This stranger looks nothing like her ghost.
In the dark, he stands straight. Eyes looking above her head. His hands, in either arm pit, as if showing his hands to her is too intimate. The street lamp outside of her window glows bright. She wonders if the man in front of her is in fact an apparition.
He refuses to look at her. “I won’t be back.”
He strides towards and out of the door.
She wonders why he no longer smells like mulch. She opens her window, hoping a breeze will come through it, and relieve her. When it doesn’t, she lays down on the bed. Arms and legs spread. This time she spreads her fingers. Futile. The heat still lays on her, in her, and he isn’t coming back.
She rolls over and out of bed. She turns the thermostat down to 40 degrees. Then she lays back on her bed, waiting until she is cool enough. Her skin raises in protest. Her nipples harden and goosebumps multiply across the front of her body. Her sex throbs. She reaches down and brushes herself. Her nipples stiffen. The goosebumps around her areola rise. She reaches down and brushes her sex again. The pleasure causing her pelvis to lift up in protest at such indulgence. She sticks a finger inside herself, and brings her other hand down to continue stroking her sex. When she orgasms, she calls out, yes, to no one. She sighs, sated, and there is no one there.
Afterward, she crawls under the covers and goes to sleep.
Celia Abel, breathes in the smell of mulch. A distant memory comes forward. Then she exhales. The memory fades. With her eyes closed, she can feel the sun warming her back. Celia opens her eyes and digs her fingers into the dark soil. It’s damp and cool. Her stranger sitting, waiting in front of her door. Celia feels balanced out here. The warm sun and the cool soil complement each other. They make her feel whole. She places the chrysanthemum plant in the dirt and then covers its roots with soil. Once she plants the flowers, she will cover the soil with mulch. Warm lips on cool lips. The smell of cigarettes.
Celia stands up and pulls a pack from her apron. She waves the pack at her new boss. He nods, giving her permission. She walks past the store her company is landscaping, past a couple of other stores, to the corner of the street. She pulls a cigarette out of the pack and inhales. Arms around her, sitting in hot water. Cold lips brushing the back of her neck.
Looking around Celia wonders if this is what change is? A new job? A new apartment? Is this what she was waiting for? She watches the people across the street. A couple holding hands. The woman looks up at the man and smiles. Sensing this, he looks down and smiles back. A mother squatting in front of a carriage, trying to soothe her screaming child. A man yelling at either his brother or lover. Where did she fit in? Was someone watching her stand here, in her bright green apron, smoking?
Celia looks across the street, into a smoothie place. A bored young woman stands behind a register reading the names of customers. A young professional steps up to take his cup. A familiar face. He takes the cup from the woman at the register. He smiles. Had she ever seen him smile? Had he ever smiled at her? Her stranger looks content. His smile playful, boyish. He turns away after paying and gives the cup to a woman standing to the side of the counter. He picks up her hand and kisses it. They smile at each other. A message: you make me whole. He leans down and kisses her.
She can’t tell if it’s a long kiss or whether she is seeing it in slow motion. She wonders if he has always been that tall? Is that why he always looked so rigid? She watches the couple walk out of the smoothie place. He glances in her direction. His smile hesitates. It seems as if it will fall. She doesn’t move. She doesn’t look away. He looks away and laughs. His companion, laughs along with her joke. Or maybe at her. Ha ha, you are the joke. She watches them walk away. His back seems, human. He smiles at her? He even smiles at the smoothie girl? Who is he? Where is the cold rigidity of his back? The resolve. She feels warm, then hot, and then stifling. It comes at her like a slow, intentional, wave.
A tear hits the sidewalk. A tear hits her upturned hand. She looks up as the rain starts pouring. Sudden. Cool. She takes a deep breath in. She lets it out. The raindrops fall so fast she is unable to count how many hit her glasses.
About the Author:
I am a Black American woman, wife, and mother. My maternal grandfather was an immigrant. To this day, I do not know the name he was given by his mother. Only the name he chose. He was a strong man. Compassionate and loving, but secretive. He was in the air force when it was segregated, and somehow managed to reach lieutenant status. After twenty-five years of abuse in the air force he became a corrections officer and spent another twenty-five years doing this. He spent the last twenty years caring for my four siblings, his daughter, his son, and I. He would constantly tell me “get your Master’s, then get your Doctorate, I know you can do it.” Meaning He wished any of his four kids had done that. Only after he had been dead for six years did I find out he had a doctorate in Metaphysics. My grandfather spent his life pushing himself to be quite literally the best he could be. I spent twenty years half listening to his stories, thinking how ridiculous and fantastic my grandfather was. Now in his memory I am working day by day to live up to even half of what he was. I hope, one day I do.