Shaka woke up. It was light and she was alone. Her clothes were gone. She remembered where she’d left them. She remembered everything.
The evening had started at an art show for her friend Rena, who unlike Shaka, thrived under the spotlight. Rena had always drawn her light from others, and Shaka had admired her ability to engage with anyone she met since they were children. There was more to Rena than just chatter though, and it showed in her art. The event was held in a new gallery in their home city of Duluth, Minnesota. It was a small space, but stylish. There was a tiny stage in the corner of the room with enough space for a single musician. There, a woman in a soft pink dress played the violin. She swayed back and forth as her bow slid across the strings. Waiters in black coats offered champagne flutes and hors d’oeuvres to the guests. Shaka sipped from one as she looked at Rena’s work. A painting of an old oak tree muted by rain hung next to a Flamenco dancer in a dress of red waves. On another wall a painting of a dark-skinned child letting go of a balloon in the forest hung next to a portrait of a pale king wearing a crown of broken glass and teeth.
Rena slid up beside Shaka without her noticing.
“What do you think?” she asked.
Shaka jumped, surprised to see Rena beside her. “I think they’re great,” she said. “I like this one.” She pointed to the painting of the child in the forest.
“I figured you would, woodsy as you are.”
“Lots of people here. You must be a pretty big deal.”
“Please. Half of them are Salem’s employees. He forced them to come.”
“You’re being modest. That’s unlike you,” Shaka said. Rena shrugged and gave her a smile. From across the room they could hear Rena’s husband Salem. His voice carried above the others.
“This piece was in Minnesota Monthly Magazine in April,” he said. “Take a closer look, notice the detail in the cityscape.”
Rena and Shaka turned toward each other and giggled. If there was anyone more outgoing than Rena, it was Salem. Though he was tall and wide, and she was short and petite, they shared the same dark hair and eyes. They almost looked like they could be related, though they came from very different places. Salem was a third-generation immigrant from Poland, where his grandfather Oskar had narrowly escaped capture by the Nazis. He had made it to America with his little sister Nadia just as their home city was being occupied. He never heard from the rest of his family again. He knew the worst had happened to them, and though those were the darkest years of his life, he also knew that for Nadia’s sake he must keep looking forward.
Since all they had in the world were each other, Oskar and Nadia were very close throughout their entire lives, and their closeness extended generations beyond them. When they started families of their own, they raised them on the same block. And when their children grew up most of them bought houses near enough that it seemed like the Kowalskis had their own neighborhood. They also had their own law firm. Oskar had been a lawyer by trade and over the years his small practice grew. Eventually Kowalski’s Law Office became Kowalski and Sons Law Practice, though the word “sons” was used loosely. Nephews, nieces and grandchildren all worked there. It was a family business, and Salem grew up knowing that one day he would go to law school and take his place among his father and uncles. Now he was a partner and felt he had been blessed to have the opportunity handed to him, and to be able to share it with a beautiful wife.
Rena also came from hard beginnings, but of another kind. She was born on the Fon du Lac reservation east of Duluth. She lived with her mother and father and an ever-changing collection of her parents’ friends in a single wide trailer in the woods. She remembered one winter when they went two weeks with no heat. Huddled with her brother in front of the space heater, they had kept each other warm. Her father had died that winter. He’d passed out in a snowbank after drinking half a bottle of whiskey and froze to death. Rena was always a little ashamed that she wasn’t more upset by it, but the truth was that he was a mean drunk. He was violent with their mother, and sometimes with her and her brother too.
She remembered thinking when he died that they would finally be safe, but her mother had stopped eating and started spending more and more time in the bathroom with a shoelace around her arm and a needle in her vein. It wasn’t long before a white lady with social services showed up and took Rena and her brother away. They were placed in foster care, together at first, but eventually they were split up and she was moved off the reservation. She was eight years old when she came to Duluth. Frightened and angry on the day she started at her new school, Shaka was the first kindness she’d found, and they had been close ever since.
Now their lives were different. Rena had married a wealthy man and she didn’t have any interest in shooting pool on the west side of town anymore, but she still always had time for Shaka. They both knew they were different. Something set them apart from their peers and whatever it was, it brought them closer together. There were things about Rena that she knew Salem would never understand. In the same way, she knew that Shaka always would.
Since Salem had been made partner a year ago, his salary allowed Rena to follow her dream of becoming a full-time artist. Shaka was sometimes jealous of her friend’s open schedule, but then she didn’t really have a dream to fulfill. Her deepest desire was to be near the wilderness at all times, if not within it, and she did that. She had a job cooking at a grille and she liked that too. Her life wasn’t extravagant, but it was comfortable, and it was all her own.
The party lasted for two hours and when the last guests were filtering out of the door, Shaka squeezed Rena’s hand and said, “I really am thrilled for you, Rena. These are your people. This is happening.”
Rena’s eyes wandered around the room and finally settled on Shaka’s face.
“Maybe it is,” she said, smiling, “but you are my people, Shaka.” Shaka leaned in and hugged her before turning to the door and filtering out with the others. She felt a pang of guilt as she left, for there were things about her that even Rena didn’t know.