When Lenaya is twenty-seven she begins to see pieces of her mama everywhere.
In the red lip color worn by a stranger at the bar, in the thick country accent of her bus driver. In the solemn way her husband says her name; in the mirror when she stares at herself long enough, her expression darkening, turning inward.
She is living up north now, in the coldest part of a Chicago winter hell. There are mornings she watches the snow click against the windshield, tap-tap-tapping like little icy fingernails against the glass. The static of the radio is lonesome in the morning half-light. She sits there, waiting, catching her breath. She hasn’t been running, but she feels winded.
Lenaya’s husband Akil is a beautiful, withered thing. Lean, sharp, ragged at the edges. Former juvenile delinquent turned college graduate. He grew up on the South Side in the Robert Taylor Homes, back before they razed all the housing projects to make the Chicago skyline look faultless again.
Akil still talks about growing up without heat, without clean clothes. He keeps a handgun in the cabinet above the kitchen sink, just in case, he says. They fell in love because of shared trauma, her years of dealing with a bipolar and abusive mother and his years of dealing with a cold and uncaring child protective services agency. Their little apartment sits over a bakery in Logan Square, and even in its simplicity, it is a practice in middle-class upward mobility. The apartment always smells like lemon coconut bars, tangy and sweet enough to have their bellies growling even in the deepest of slumbers. Cluttered with thrift-store furniture – dark old woods that are warm and homely – and worn bookshelves lined with tattered paperbacks; a coffee table covered by half-filled coffee cups, and an old record player next to a stack of vintage vinyl.
The floor is covered in a giant Persian rug inherited from Lenaya’s grandmama. Sometimes she lies down on top of it on her belly and picks at the loose fibers, imagines her mama yelling at her to sit up, stop all that nervous behavior. Sometimes Akil stretches out on his back next to her and hums something sweet to her, usually Chet Baker or Sarah Vaughan. She watches his lips move to sound out the notes, watches his chest rise and fall, his breathing mapping the rhythm of the music, the crackle and snap of the old record.
Akil uses music to calm her down, to bring her to the here and now, and not to the then of her past. He talks to her about anything, everything. How the slaves made music to set themselves free, how in the last three thousand years there have only been two hundred and forty years of peace, how his brother and father still write to him from Statesville pen. There’s always love in his voice when he speaks about his family, a kind of familial love that feels safe, assured, even in its dysfunction.
Akil talks about the elementary school the two of them teach at, all the kids with bottled up aggression and intergenerational sorrows. The steady stream of new, inexperienced teachers and the evils of charter schools and standardized testing. How they’ll both burn out before they reach thirty-five, but keep going anyway because once upon a time there had been a teacher who saved their lives.
Always, Akil tells her he loves her, and that the two of them are a series of quantum entanglements, connected across space and time, any action performed on one impacting the other.
Sometimes she places her cheek on Akil’s heart just to hear his love beat louder for her. On the record player, the trombone wails on and on.
In the mirror, Lenaya sees her mama in her own reflection – soft brown skin, thick eyebrows, wide doe eyes, and the long, curling hair her mama loved so much. Plump lips, big dimples, and a round chin. Wide waist and thick breasts. Lenaya thinks of the lullaby-smooth sound of her mama’s singing voice. Thinks of the nights when that voice was the only thing keeping her sane, the only thing that could put her to sleep, the only thing that could hurt her.
Lenaya’s throat ripples as she swallows. She asks her reflection, Is this how you hurt me still, mama?
Her mama’s reflected eyes are dark and watery in response. Lenaya puts a hand around the base of her own neck. Squeezes hard. Feels the thudding of her pulse, the boom-boom-boom of a warning.
Another woman at a bar in the West Loop shares her mama’s red lips and dark eyes. “You believe in magic?” the woman asks, sitting down next to Lenaya.
Lenaya sips at her gin and tonic, wonders if it’s magic that has her mama visiting her in other people. “Yes,” she says, and it’s not a lie, just a folding of the truth, a desire to understand something more of the universe than the things typically given.
“Good,” the woman says. She wears a tiger eye gemstone that shimmers against her light brown skin. Her red lips curl up gently when she asks, “Can I see your palm?”
Lenaya arches a skeptical brow, but nods anyway, offering up her hand. The woman’s fingers burn hot as they trace the creases in Lenaya’s palm. She takes her time examining the patterns, her eyes swirling with a hint of mischief.
“You’re holding something too close, and it ain’t doing you any good,” the woman says after a time, red lips widening into a crooked smile, her index finger pausing along Lenaya’s heart line. “Holding and holding. It ain’t no good, baby.”
Lenaya manages to offer a semblance of a smile in turn, pulling her hand back gently and saying, “Yeah…uh, thank you.” Heart in her throat, she turns to gather her purse. She doesn’t look back toward the woman as she walks across the bar and out the front door. The sharp, cold breeze slaps her face as she exits; a hint of a coming snowstorm in the air. Lenaya swallows against the chill, feels something stick like blood at the back of her throat. It feels like when one of her mama’s punches used to land solidly against her cheek. The fear and the tang of blood stuck in her throat, and with it the cold bitterness of rejection.
She closes her eyes, holds her breath and steps out onto the frost-covered sidewalk. She looks back then, but only once. She sees the palm reader making her rounds in the bar, offering a piece of magic to all the lonely hearts inside.
Lenaya remembers how her mother had looked in their last moments together. The woman had been high on pain meds, curled fetal-style on a bed in a motel in Memphis. Long hair tangled and slicked across her sweaty forehead. Eyelids drooping over a stare that was nearly vacant. Lost inside of herself, so far gone Lenaya didn’t even need to say goodbye. Her mama wouldn’t, couldn’t be reached.
There’s a teacher at Lenaya’s school that wears an exact replica of her mother’s favorite button-down beige cardigan. Lenaya catches herself staring at it for too long sometimes, wanting to go up to the other teacher, to ask her to hand over the sweater. Yank it off of her if she resists. Let it go, she’d whisper if she could. Let me go. In hopes this would make the world feel a little less haunted.
The steam in the bathroom is thick, the water uncomfortably hot against her skin. But Lenaya doesn’t mind, sinking down into the bathtub with a soft sigh. She’s worn out, from a long day at work as well as from a long night of dreaming. Her skin feels thin all over, and when Akil snakes in behind her in the bathtub, touches the back of her neck with his fingertips, she doesn’t mind that either. His motions make a silken trail against her skin as he traces the constellation of old scars on her back, fingers pressing gently against them like he’s mapping a new galaxy.
They both just barely fit in the tub; their bodies slide against the porcelain. Akil grabs onto Lenaya’s hips when everything gets a little too slippery, and there are a few times when they both go down together, sloshing water over the lid of the tub and onto the floor.
Coming up for air, Akil kisses the back of her neck, wraps a few tendrils of her hair around his fingers and asks, “You sure about this?”
For a moment Lenaya doesn’t remember what he’s asking, but then he tugs on a long coil of her hair again, and she exhales a deep, “Yeah.”
The steam mixing with the warm glow from the bathroom bulb makes everything look fuzzy around the edges. The window in the bathroom is open just a crack, but the air inside is still so heavy that it feels like an extra body sitting on her chest.
She lets out a big whoosh of breath, settling back in the tub as Akil begins to wash her hair. He talks about nothing in particular, slides both of his hands into her curls, massages the shampoo deep into her scalp. With the movement of their bodies, the water laps around them, hitting the sides of the tub at a steady tempo.
“How much do you want me to cut off?” he asks, rinsing the soap suds from her hair and pointing to the scissors on the counter.
“As much as you can,” she says, leaning back.
Akil slides his fingers through the entire length of her hair. He parts it layer by layer, cuts inch by inch, letting the long strands drop into the soapy water. It feels like a weight lifting, a lifetime falling away…
The remainder of “Holding Pattern” is featured in our current issue, including short stories by 13 Black female writers. Contributors include: Christian Loriel, Desiree Evans, Avi-Yona Israel, Wandeka Gayle, L.M. Bennett, DiAnne Malone, Muli Amaye, Tatiana Taylor, Kourtnie Rodney, Jacquese Armstrong, Candice Lola, Preslaysa Williams, and Ilisha Nicole. Buy it today!