Across the world, millions of girls are sweeping, scrubbing, or cutting up vegetables and herbs at their mother’s elbow. Distracted, barely missing their fingertips, nearly knocking over a vase with a broomstick, eyes wide and mouths ajar, constantly dreaming of America. They picture America like a sitcom with lots of predetermined funny moments or like a sugary sweet pop song that plays over and over again during an endless summer. Now that I’m here, I can see that I was one of these naive girls, longing to slam a red locker door in the face of her dreamboat boyfriend just before the lunch bell rings.
But before I left home, I felt this itching to be close to my family in a way I’d never experienced before. It felt like the final goodbye, even though I knew that wasn’t true. True that some part of me would go to a distant land, to learn and grow away from everything I’d ever known. But also part of me would always be distinctly different. Parts of me would be damaged far away from my mother’s watchful eye, while other parts would freshly blossom. My sister, Anika, and I would always be at odds, but despite the eye rolls and snide remarks, the daily fights and the annoyance of sharing a bed with someone who sleeps spread eagle, we had our soft moments; our small moments of joy, peace, and comfort. Anika had grown even more cold and distant leading up to my departure.
I remember the day it sunk in that I was actually leaving. We were waiting for our Aunt Zoe to go shopping at Bourda Market for my trip. We sat, as we always did, in the shade beneath Aunt Zoe’s mango tree, the only spot in the yard shielded from the scorching Guyana sun. Anika was painting her toenails a gloppy bubblegum pink. I noticed a ripe mango dangling out of sight just above her head. Something about her jaded beauty, her 20-inch weave cascading in waves, her long eyelashes, and button nose made me truly wish the lush, red-green fruit would fall down and knock some sense into her.
“So,” Anika drawled, “You’re going to America. America. You. Imagine! I guess they’re just letting any loser in these days.” Anika sighed, dabbing another swipe of pink on her toe.
“It’s not so hard to imagine! And I’ll have you know many people think I’m very cool! I can go to America!” I whined.
“Maybe, if you could have just pulled a couple of those encyclopedias you’re always reading out of your tight ass... things might have been different.”
“My butt is growing in, I'll have you know.... slowly.”
Anika couldn’t help but laugh, “Yes, very slowly.”
“And I’m not sure what you mean by ‘things might have been different.’ ? This is good! This is what I’ve always wanted.”
“There you go again, lost in your daydreams, Celestine. It’s not real. And you’re gonna end up right back here. Wait and see.”
Anika shook her head knowingly, fanning the flames of my anxiety and snuffing out my fledgling fantasies all in one gesture. So much was communicated between us, from silence to a sudden noise of wounds yet unhealed. She broke away first with a disgusted blink, kissing her teeth.
“There’s no way I would go to America for school. The schools there are terrible, the whole world knows that. The only good reason to go is to become a star. A singer or an actress or something like that, in Hollywood with Rihanna and Kim Kardashian.”
“Really, do you think you can just move there and become a star?”
“Do you think you can just move there and become… what exactly is it you are trying to become?”
With all of my energy, I wished that damn mango would fall.
We were interrupted by the quick clip of our aunts’ sandals becoming audible as she slid open the screen door and peered out, her stare alternating from Anika’s heavily angel face to my acne-ridden mug. Aunt Zoe came out onto the grass, stretching her arms upwards towards the oppressive Guyana sun as if she hadn’t been born under its rays and lived every day with it wrapped around her like a blanket. Aunt Zoe had a generous smiling mouth, long hair that she always kept in braids and large almond-shaped eyes that were always smiling. She worked at the library in Georgetown and her husband, Uncle Marvin, was a political representative from the People’s Party. We hardly ever saw him, a relief to me, as I was always unnerved around him. Guyanese politics was a dirty business, and to rise to the position he currently held – it necessarily made him a hard man. Every now and then, you could see the sparks of the man Aunt Zoe fell in love with; lively, sharp, and charismatic. But mostly in his older years, fear had made Uncle Marvin small.
“Girls, ready to go shopping?” Aunt Zoe sashayed towards the girls. “Celestine, did you make a list of everything you’ll need for school?”
I nodded and to Anika, as if for confirmation, but her eyes were hard again. She stood up, balancing herself on the heels of her feet on the walk towards the house to avoid ruining her pedicure.
“Shit, my nail!” she whispered a little too loudly.
Aunt Zoe’s head turned slowly, as if unsure if someone had called her name and asked Anika, “What was that?”
Anika, in a much younger voice, squealed, “Oh, nothing Auntie Z!” and anything that Aunt Zoe had been concerned about mere moments ago flew out of her mind and through her ears. Walking towards the car, Aunt Zoe gave my shoulder a little squeeze. She was the only member of my family that I felt was actually happy for me.
“This is a big deal, Celestine. I remember when I left for London, what a flood of emotions!”
“Was your mother sad when you left?” I asked hesitantly. I was almost as surprised as Aunt Zoe to hear myself say it. My grandmother on my mother’s side had died before I was born and I was always curious about her.
“She…” Aunt Zoe faltered, “I don’t remember, I suppose so.” Aunt Zoe watched me as we got closer to her red Volvo.
“Your mother will miss you very much, Celestine. It’s impossible to have a child and not miss them when they are away from you. She doesn’t always know how to show it, but she will miss you.”
That was one of the many moments leading up to my departure that I could not help but see playing before my eyes like a silent film; even now on campus, half a world away. When my attention slipped in class, the scenes began to paint themselves like a projection over the professor, the desks, classmates. Sounds and words superfluous to the vivid memory because I have already felt their sting, my mind was already made up, the memories only brought on hurt. Some masochistic energy in my being felt a twinge of pleasure in pain. It felt like I deserved it. Like the spoonful of cod liver oil mom used to chase us down with - revolting but good for you. Bad memories were like medicine to me, drugs I would take for the rest of my life. It kept me up at night that I could not think of what I did wrong. I’d definitely done something wrong.
Although my mother spoke to me less and less as the day of my departure approached, she was determined not to let this chance to show off to our family and friends slip past. She decided I would have a going away party. Aunt Zoe volunteered to host and pay the expenses.
The night before, when mummy thought I was sleeping, she had kissed my forehead for so long, I thought she might have forgotten where she was and what she was doing. I could almost feel the urgency and sheer volume of the thoughts in her head parallel to mine. My throat felt tight and I feared a tear might slip from my closed lids.
It must have been hard for her to raise and try to love a daughter that was so alien to her. I was not alone in my feeling that I had been planted in this family, a faerie baby switched in the night. Where she and Anika were two peas in a pod. Anika readily embraced all our mother’s interests, prejudices, and philosophies. It didn’t hurt that the two looked alike - poreless brown skin beauties with baby-like, wide eyes, and easy flirts with effortless charm.
My mother only mentioned our father to say that I looked like him, dark and serious. Then she would laugh wistfully to herself as if there were some punchline she couldn’t reveal. There was nothing inherently bad about either word, I reasoned objectively, and yet it hurt like a curse.
My mother radiates despair. She has no control over it, I know, and so I forgive her again and again. She gives her love like feeding babies from bleeding, cracked breasts. A weak trickle of love intermingled with the grief and loss she’d seen in her life. Her playful moments were not her loving us. When she was loving us, it was yelling matches.
When Anika dropped out of high school to pursue music, mummy gave her one good box in the ear. As usual, my brother, Joey, and I shrank back into our seats. I could see Joey’s eyes shifting nervously as he thought of an excuse to leave the table.
“Uh… gotta do my homework, Ma.” he stammered as he stood, turning back only to grab his bowl of soup. My mother barely noticed, waving him off with a flick of her wrist.
“Don’t be stupid, girl. You’re throwing away your life!” our Mother exclaimed, slapping her palm on the shaky wooden dinner table. Everyone’s bowl of fish soup quivered. Her silk, red headscarf sifted to the side, exposing dark unruly curls pulled into long cornrow braids. Mummy’s deep orange-brown skin was shining with sweat, her eyes like darts, precisely focused on Anika. I could feel my sister’s discomfort.
“I don’t care about books and maths and all that.” Anika said into her soup, “It’s just not for me, mom.”
“Not for you? You are 16 years old, you don’t know nothin’ yet, little girl.”
“Yeah well, I know this! I know I love singing more than anything else. And school is just a waste of time when I could be…”
“Could be what? Prostituting yourself in front of men for a few dollars? Looks fade quick enough. You’ll see.”
“Just because you failed, doesn’t mean I will.”
That was when mummy finally reached over the table and hit her. I froze. A steaming, piece of fish hung limply on my fork.
After a series of confused facial expressions, Anika started crying. One tear crept out carefully painting a luminous line down her cheek. Her eyes were blank like her body was there but her spirit had left and gone somewhere else. She stood up and left the table. This was how our mother loved, with the drawing of tears from her loved ones. Tears were her lifeblood.
So I was not surprised to feel her warm tears run through the fine kinks of my hair and into the cradles of my ears as she kissed me in the night.
On our trip to Bourda Market, Aunt Zoe found a dress for me. It was the kind of dress that I’d only ever seen in Anika’s magazines on pale, long-legged celebrities—bright pink, draping lazily over one shoulder then hanging elegantly to the knee. We rode the wave of people moving every which way around the massive marketplace. Stalls for meats, produce fruits, spices, rum and wine, clothing and souvenirs, seemed to lean up against each other like dominoes. People laughing, cursing, and haggling for better prices. Men playing cards in small groups, smoking, and saying rude things. There was the coconut man and the sugar cane girl. Stronger than the smell of spices and sweetbreads was the smell of sweat and the breath of the people. Every footstep a reminder to the senses, a billion alarms reminding me I was alive.
The dressmaker had the misfortune of being clustered behind a meat stand, but Aunt Zoe noticed the bright cloth hanging beyond the fresh cuts. The shopkeeper was all alone at her stall. All of her dresses hung as far to the left as possible, presumably to avoid blood splatters from next door. We tiptoed over little pools of rancid blood and water. The air was stifling and raw.
Anika’s eyes grew wide when she saw the skirts and dresses and her mouth might have hung open if it weren’t for the stench. Aunt Zoe pointed to the magenta, Grecian dress and looked back at me smiling in the rank air as only she could.
“What do you think, Cele? This would be perfect for the party.”
I stared, dumb. Until that moment, I was not the kind of girl who wore bright pink. I was never the type to play at being a Grecian goddess with my shoulders exposed. The dressmaker was an Indian girl, only a little older than Anika, with soft round shoulders and full, plump cheeks. She wore a tired old T-shirt and faded jeans, just like me.
Noticing my moment of hesitation she offered, “This dress will look nice on you, miss!”
The woman smiled and winked at me, a true salesperson. Turning to Aunt Zoe, she continued, “And she slim too, you know. Perfect! One time I have a gyal come here and try it on, but she bamsey too big, nah!” We all laughed, and before I could say yes or no, the shop owner was pulling the dress down from the display, and Aunt Zoe pulled some cash from her purse.
On the day of the party, Anika arranged my braids into a high bun atop my head. The fixture was so heavy that I could hardly keep my face at the precise angle that Anika demanded to apply make-up. She kept pushing my head this way and that way.
“Ow!” I complained, feeling an unpleasant twinge in my neck. I was afraid when she pulled out a compact of broken blue eye shadow and started swabbing it on generously with a discolored brush.
“Are you sure about this eyeshadow, Anika? I don’t really wear um…”
“Colors? Yeah, I know. You just want to blend into the walls most of the time. Not tonight.” Anika said, with a firm note of determination. “Close!” she commanded, jabbing the brush at my face again.
To my surprise, the touch of the brush was soft and gentle on my eyelids.
“I hope you grow out of that shyness. It doesn’t do you any good.” I could feel her warm, sweet breath on my nose.
“I’m nervous about what it will be like there. What if I don’t make any friends?”
“You always find a group of weirdos. Now you’ll find your American weirdos. You’ll be okay.”
I nodded my head, wanting to believe my sister.
“Watch it! Or you’ll have blue eyeshadow up your nose!”
I opened my eyes and forced myself to stare at my reflection in the mirror. It took me a minute to recognize myself. The eyeshadow and red rose-colored lipstick did not look the way it used to on my features, like a little girl playing with mommy’s things. I had full lips to accentuate and eyes that seemed to suggest some provocative mystery. I had a face and a body too that was forgetting about girlhood. I had my first conscious thought of being a woman. No more oversized school uniforms, cut-off jean shorts, and faded t-shirts. Just one baby bird, hoping not to starve or be eaten upon leaving the nest. I focused on the deep ochre of my irises in the mirror. I still did not know if I trusted that girl looking back, if she could really pull it off. I decided to bet on myself. I couldn’t believe in anyone else.
“You’ll be almost decent.” I could hear Anika grinning, though my eyes were closed shut.
“Gee, thanks.” I snarled.
Lively calypso music was playing from the backyard, and the sounds of people greeting laughing floated up through the open bedroom window.
I was seventeen. The age that mummy had Anika. I always told myself that when I was seventeen, I would choose better. I would choose myself and my education. I wouldn’t be so foolish as to wander off the beaten path of the ones who made it out. The ones who got straight As and acceptance letters to London universities and ivy leagues in America. The ones who became doctors or married doctors. The ones who managed not to make a misstep and get dragged back down to our little paradise/hell.
I wanted to cry. I gulped furiously, not wanting Anika to see me get emotional. In our family, people were chided for crying. It made you weak. So instead, I stood up, adjusted my dress, and using my sister’s shoulder I stabilized my shaking legs. Although I was unaccustomed to high heels, I was determined to have some poise. I strode to the far side of the room, gaining in confidence with every step. Then I looked back at Anika and smiled the kind of genuine smile we rarely shared. The kind that feels like your heart is exposed.
Her perfectly drawn eyebrows scrunched together in confusion and surprise. Then she smiled back, the same kind of smile, a gummy one with lots of teeth. We didn’t say anything.
I walked down the stairs to see relatives arriving through the front door, women who had become aunties during one of my mother’s relationships or another, their hands hot with trays and bowls of food, and old uncles who would eventually settle in a corner to drink rum and reminisce about Guyana past in between the slamming of dominoes and the clinking of glasses. Little cousins were running about, threatening the many fine bowls, crystal geodes, and vases Aunt Zoe kept on display around the spacious living room, and as I walked towards the back door, I saw that my friends were there.
At one table, the Bashirs’ chatted with our Uncle Marvin, who looked uncomfortable in his leather sandals and leaf print shorts. Mr. Bashir was leaning over the table, and I hoped they were not talking politics. An Indian man and a Black man talking politics is bound to end badly so I decided to keep an eye on them. But when I passed by their table, I heard the name “Obama” ring with glee over nearly empty glasses of ice and watery rum, and I felt a sense of relief. For the first time in my memory, our upcoming national election was not the hottest topic of discussion. Instead, all eyes were on the American election. Some upstart named Barack Obama, a Black man, was running for president and by the looks of it his chances were good. It was easy to briefly ignore the tension between the People’s Progressive Party, Mr. Bashirs’ party, and the People’s National Congress, of which Uncle Marvin was the Vice-Chair.
I caught sight of the young people. Cousins and friends were knotted together, balancing plates of pine tarts and delicate-looking cheese straws on their knees. Joey was hitting on my friend Marissa. She never told me this outright, but I knew that he was the reason she didn’t want to come over anymore. Marissa stood up immediately, came over, and hugged me.
Before she could sit down, other cousins and schoolmates were coming up to hug me. All commenting on how beautiful I was until I felt I’d rather die than hear another surprised compliment. I don’t think it was the make-up or the dress that drew them to me. The scent of America already hanging over me was like a pheromone dripping from my pores, spilling out hope, luxury, and ease. Although I could not be sure of any of those things, I sometimes indulged in the fantasy with others. The whole party was running on fantasy. Because if not this, what did one mean when they said they hoped for better things? I turned back to Marissa complaining about my brother.
“He is disgusting!” she fumed. “Telling me about how we gon have a baby and ting.” She made a wrenching sound.
“He’s joking, Marissa.” I said in a soothing tone, all the while shooting my brother a dirty look from across the party. He smiled and shrugged nonchalantly.
Kelvin stepped into the party quietly. He had a gift for going unnoticed that was painfully familiar to me. Perhaps that was why we would never be the way he wanted us to be. I wanted to be excited about a man. I wanted to get to know the intimate secrets of someone different from me, who lived a different life or at least knew there were different lives to live.
Kelvin had been my schoolmate since primary school. He was my first school dance date. He was the first boy I let kiss me. His mouth tasted like sticky sweet coconut water after we shared one near the sea wall. Our first date.
He was nice enough, but so readily available. From years of watching my mother try to build happiness like a house of cards and watching it fall every time, I got the sense that life was never so easy. But I entertained him at times. I even let him touch my non-existent butt a little bit.
One night, only a few weeks before my going away party, Marissa and I went to another going away for a popular girl in our year with wealthy parents. She was going to study in London. Her announcement effectively stole my thunder, but I didn’t mind. At her party, Kelvin, Marissa and I had one hell of a tropical punch. The rum ran nearly pure at the bottom of the pitcher. He touched my butt again, but this time reached his hand between the cheeks, stroking me from the front and back again. I still remember how I shuddered. And maybe this was the reason why I’d given Kelvin a chance the summer before I left for America. But as soon as we started this thing - sloppy and not totally pleasurable kissing with teeth and drool, him timidly touching my body in places I'd never been touched before, me waking up to text messages filled with x’s and hearts‒I began to feel repulsed by his presence. And as the pressure began to build to go “all the way”, I found myself itching to leave the country as soon as possible. I would rather be remembered as a great love who was lost than the girl from across the street who broke his heart.
Kelvin was wearing an impeccably ironed plaid shirt and his regular day-to-day jeans, faded at the knee. He was growing into his brother’s clothes now, I thought to myself. He would not like to hear me say that out loud. The truth was that the boy with eyes like a scared doe was growing handsome, his jaw more pronounced, his skin was clearing up. I had even heard a rumor that a girl was jealous of me. Over him. She should have taken him. They both might be happier that way.
“Hey, baby.” he said, pulling me in by the waist after a moment of awkward hesitation. I hated it when he called me “baby”. I was not his baby. That is not to say that I wouldn’t have been someone else’s “baby”, but certainly not his.
“Hi Kelvin.” I said, forcing his hands off my waist and taking a step back. I was embarrassed to have this display of affection in front of my mother, although she had so much wine that she barely seemed to notice. I didn’t want mummy to know a thing about a kiss, a touch, or a boyfriend. That was all Anika’s territory.
Aunt Zoe rushed towards the center of the lawn where a little clearing was still free.
She yelled, “Hello, excuse me?” into the buzzing crowd and then a sharp “Quiet!” which made everyone jump because she did not often raise her voice. Soon only the light clinking of glasses could be heard against the soca tune that the DJ turned down low.
“I was just thinking let me make a little speech, you know? This girl here, but eh, she’s a woman now right? This woman Celestine, she is one of the brightest minds I have ever met in my life, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have her as a niece.”
She stopped for a moment to dab away a tear and I felt my own eyes prickling with emotion. To my Aunt Zoe, I owed my survival. She was a place to go when I wanted to be with someone or if I wanted to be alone – she always knew which one I came for. But best of all, she made books accessible and unlimited to me. It was only a matter of asking. She let me study in the library after hours although she wouldn’t let me get any studying done. She liked to hang around my table, ask me everything about my life. And truthfully, I liked telling her. No one else really cared.
“When I tell you this is a special girl – she has so much ah life in her! From small, she always like to read and write. Hours pass and ya nah hear nothing from she! Because she have her head in the books!” Aunt Zoe laughed, throwing her head back.
I liked it when she talked like this, forgetting her “librarian” voice. She was not usually so boisterous, but I guessed that the liquor had been flowing for some time before I came down to the party. Everyone already seemed sated and merry.
“Like you.” My mother’s voice floated in from the far end of the yard where food in tin pans steamed. Candice and Zoe had a complicated relationship, I could never quite figure it out.
My mother loved her sister, and yet resented her for her seemingly charmed life. She loved her sister and yet hated her for loving me, the child she had purposefully neglected. But her voice was not harsh, yet it seemed to take everyone in the party a second to realize that Candice was not chastising her sister.
“Yes,” Aunt Zoe picked up. “Like me. In some ways, but in other ways, Celestine is all her own. This child since young had wisdom. Since young she ask me “Aunty why this? Why that?” Or she know when to hush up and listen. Ya hear me? Since young she wise.” Aunt Zoe’s eyes began to well up again, and she called me forward, placing her hand on my shoulder. I looked out at the party assembled in the yard. Joey leaning up against the mango tree, already bored, Anika indiscreetly texting, old aunties I rarely saw watching me more intently than I had ever been watched before. Next, my mother took the mic, not to be outdone by her sister.
“I always knew she was meant for something different than I know about, so I ... sometimes I did not know what to say.”
The party was quiet. It seemed the whole of Buxton just then turned off to be quiet.
“I do my best for her, my best might not be good enough, but it’s what I give. And I hope
I taught you strength for this journey ahead of you. I didn’t mean to – I only wanted you to be strong. This place heh we livin, I’ve seen girls like you smart and beautiful, snatched from her dreams just like so.” Candice snapped her fingers and the sound echoed through the yard.
The effect was chilling, but mummy was still smiling.
“I wanted to protect you. I see now you can protect yourself. I know you’ll be successful, Celestine.”