Tell me how long the train’s been gone
It rained yesterday. Unlike any storm I’ve seen of late. The water assaulted our itineraries and sent everyone, but the crabs, inside. You see, there are crabs in my yard. No, that’s not some ill-phrased innuendo. There are literally crabs in my yard where squirrels should be. They dig holes in the ground for cover and bite chunks out of the mangoes that fall from trees.
The house is exactly as I remember it except smaller. Isn’t that how it always is? Our childhood enlarges its memories and our adulthood stomps them down. My uncles showed me how to pick fruit from our mango tree, and how to pick out the ackee when it burst open; if you pick it before it’s ripe it can kill you. Uncle Balla picked me sour cherries from the tree and I spat my seeds into a crab hole. I identified the breadfruit on the ground before they could teach me as a way to show them that my Yankee pickney blood hadn’t completely overtaken the islander in me.
The projects in the states scare me because those housed within know, just as much as I do, that I don’t belong. They can smell me approaching as an anteater sniffs out its prey. It is at their edges that I transform into an innocent island girl. One who is ignorant of their mores, seeking only to observe. Here, I’m tentative for different reasons. I used to belong but that was long ago. My patois flowed effortlessly from my lips and I could cuss you if the need arose. Now, my years have made me hesitate. I can feel home creeping back to my lips. My jaw relaxes and my tendency to smile is even faster. My granma fell and broke her hip and now she is afraid to walk. When I came back to the states I had to fix my words and now I’m afraid to talk. My accent is an awkward half-breed. Some words come out patois, some in broken English and even more are pimp-slapped by the judgment of my lips and they fall short of inquiring ears. After an “Eh?” encouraging me to repeat they fair better, but the nervousness doesn’t disappear.
My cousins Danae, Safiyah (say-fee-ah), and Qadera (Kah-deer-ah) are all gentle with me. After spending a few short hours with them Qadera told me she loved me when we dropped her off and Safiyah clung to my neck and told me she wanted to stay. Is that what it’s like to have blood family? An immediate acceptance? Once they heard the word “cousin” their allegiance was mine, and mine theirs. I wanted to talk to them about the things I hint at with my students. I wanted to make sure they knew how beautiful they were, that being intelligent is wonderful and they should never hide it. I don’t know if it was because of my newly established familial moniker, or because of the internal clock that has begun ticking. Either way, I enjoyed its presence in my system.
I’m tempted to stay here, not because of the beauty sold in magazines and airline commercials. Rather because I feel myself filling up. My cousin listens to me when I say she “muss bade” before we can watch tv. I am introduced as “yay-ahn.” Eric’s daughta legitimizes my existence. I belong. I don’t feel the need to justify my presence as I do in the States. I just exist. My auntie Herma (erma) cooks me breakfast and I am satisfied. My tongue has long craved the bitterness of ackee, sal’fish, green banana, dumplin, and hot tea. The sweetness of sweetened condensed milk satiates my desire for food. I don’t snack. My skin is smooth and soft from its saltwater bath and sandflea exfoliant. I see what is happening in my country and I am hard-pressed to find a solution. That may be why I am enamored with Marcus Garvey.
I am indeed torn between many worlds, which seem better off without my presence. “No man is an island,” or so they say. I was born in the States, raised in Jamaica, brought back to the States, my parents divorced, my mother moved, I went away to school when I was eleven, and have yet to settle down. I don’t know where I belong. Everywhere I go seems right when I am there. Perhaps it’s time to hibernate. I’ll embrace myself in a cocoon of safety where my intellect can rest, my heart can restore and my body will find its place. I am the blank tile in Scrabble that works with any word, but has little value. I don’t understand myself. Not yet, perhaps, not ever.
I think the struggle will be helping others, and myself, find peace with that.