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A Meditation on Return Voyages

A personal narrative that explores the nature of both regret and hope.

Photo credit: mixetto

I.

Places that I am terrified of returning to:

Shitty $49-a-night motels with dingy sheets and showers overrun with mildew smelling of sweat, cigarettes, and desperation; the backseat of a 1979 Cutlass parked in the dark alley between the corner store and T’s Restaurant pinned underneath a bumbling teenager who’s vigorously making love to my inner thigh; the altars of Pentecostal churches swaying with what old women believe is Jesus, asking forgiveness for sins that I’m going to commit again and again; the pathetic drips, buzzes, and beeps of cold hospital rooms; the moon-sized dread of waiting for people to die; my daddy’s grave in Southview Cemetery; my grandma’s unmarked grave in Hillcrest; the top right-hand corner of the closet shelf where my mother’s ashes are hidden from both sight and mind; the kind of insecurity that makes me cower in the presence of beauty, wealth, intellect, privilege, pale skin, or anything else that I have mistakenly labeled as being supreme to my existence; the McDonald’s in Penn Station where I held my breath when I saw the tail of a rat wriggling its way into the trash bin; the dilapidated porches of near-abandoned shotgun houses in Turpin Hill, looking for my missing junkie mother; hole-in-the-wall nightclubs where I expect to see Black bodies glistening with sweat, Black smiles unfurling white teeth, Black hands touching, Black hips swinging back and forth, Black feet growing tired from spinning magic on the dance floor… but instead I’m met with stone African faces, limp dark bodies, empty dance floors; the bathroom just off the principal’s office in my son’s middle school, armed with a travel-size package of Wet Ones and a roll of industrial paper towels, wiping shit from his bottom, legs, back, and the toilet seat, avoiding the embarrassment swelling in his eyes, praying that this isn’t our forever; the brand of envy that makes me wish for a life not my own.

 

II.

If I had a daughter, I’d call her Garvey, for Marcus Garvey.

Most people who recognize the dark-skinned, fat-cheeked activist and political leader remember (primarily) his repatriation efforts. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Garvey was an outspoken advocate of the Back-to-Africa Movement, launching the Black Star Line shipping outfit designed to move goods and embittered Black folks from America to a newly industrialized Liberia. He envisioned a universal homeland for people of African descent from all points—a mothership of sorts beckoning descendants back to their Black origin, Black soil, Black dignity; a real-life Wakanda fueled by Black dreams, Black ingenuity. Ships from the Black Star Line would set sail from American ports, cross the Atlantic, and dock in free Liberian colonies where all of Africa’s children would build colleges and institutions, become captains of their own industries, promote their own ideas, worship their own gods. Garvey imagined a coastal African heaven on Earth. After a number of the ships purchased by Black Star failed and Garvey was convicted on charges of mail fraud, the Black Star Line folded in 1922 never having made it to the continent of Africa. In 1927, Marcus Garvey was deported to his birthplace in Jamaica. Although Garvey’s efforts were unsuccessful, his ambition was contagious. Before him, few Black men had dreamed so big or so bold for their people or come so close to fulfilling a plot for self-determination and independence. He planted the seeds necessary for revolution.

If I never have a daughter, perhaps I’ll get a tattoo of a tiny black star on my ankle or behind my ear.

 

III.

It’s 5:30 AM and I’m at the E gate awaiting my flight home to Augusta, GA from Tampa, FL. Missing my four-post canopy and pillow-top mattress that I haven’t slept on for three nights, I find the seat with the fewest crumbs tucked into the creases and I fall into it. I let my eyelids surrender to the heaviness of pre-dawn morning, mercurial hotel sleep, and pre-flight jitters that should have subsided long ago. I do not sleep. But, I dream a recurring dream about my mother. She’s wearing a yellow shirt and purple pants, both made of some sort of silk fabric. She’s beautiful—just like she was when I was four and only stood as high as her waist and my real hair fell past my shoulders, touching the middle of my back. In this dream, she and I are always in some extravagant building (maybe a hotel lobby or the atrium of an art museum). And there’s a little girl—a baby—with us. The baby’s eyes are round and black with eyelashes so long I fear that one will get stuck in her eye each time she blinks, and her hair is gathered in a puff of soft curls right in the center of her crown. I always hope that she is mine. And then I awaken.

At the gate across from me, an airport worker is transporting a presumably disabled passenger in a wheelchair. The worker parks the chair next to a row of seats near his gate and then walks away as if in a hurry, as if she fears the man might ask for further assistance. I part my eyes farther apart and realize that the man is blind. His eyes look as if they’ve been hastily glued shut. The man—gaunt and curly-haired—manages a cup of coffee and a banana in his lap. His backpack is slung across the back of his wheelchair. Expertly balancing his coffee cup between his thin thighs, the man reaches around and pulls his backpack onto his lap. His fingers dance frantically across the zippers and in-and-out of the fabric of the compartments of the well-worn bag. He’s looking—with his fingertips and the palms of his hands—for some item that he’s lost. A burst of Samaritanism rouses me. I should help him. I should get up from my seat, walk over to him, and say Excuse me sir, can I help you? But I fail. Frozen by a base voyeuristic impulse, I stare at his grotesque eyes, watch him fumble and search until a tall stranger seated two seats down from me gets up and walks over to him, stopping the train wreck.

 

IV.

Heading back to work after the holidays is never an easy task…

No NPR. No podcasts. No music. The quiet of the cabin is soothing, ruminant. No sound except the whir of passing 18-wheelers, the vroom of drivers in a hurry, the low hum of wheels on asphalt, the steady beat of thoughts entering and exiting my head, crashing into each other at each mile passed.

Mile marker 172: Chick-fil-A. Empty stomach. Need to save. No time to stop. No cash on hand. Keep driving. Mile marker 165: Call best friend. Tinge of guilt. I need to tell her that I can’t babysit this weekend. I love my goddaughter and godson. But my house is already full. Pat and I are both sick. I’m a writer. I need to write. Why doesn’t she get that? Look at phone resting in the cup holder. Don’t call. Guilt gnaws. Keep driving. Mile marker 150: Does O love me? Don’t think about O. Keep driving.

Mile marker 148: I love O. I think. Stop thinking about O! Just hungry. Keep driving.

Mile marker 131: Signal loss (as usual). Pray for Robert. No falling asleep at his desk. No voices in his head. At least no talking to the voices in his head. No toe-walking. No rocking. No weird boy calls from teachers today. Realization. Not possible. Robert is Robert. Deal. Keep driving. Baldwin County line: Signal restored (as usual). No missed calls from the school. Victory.

Though it’s just me, my car always thinks there’s someone else. From Grovetown to Milledgeville an icon of a red seatbelt remains lit on the dashboard, signaling that the passenger is not secure. The car feels the weight of my books and my purse and thinks they breathe, thinks they could die upon impact. Sometimes, I think the car knows something that I do not.

 

V.

Three aunts died in five years. We didn’t give them funerals; we gave them homegoing celebrations.

The first aunt died in the family home. She baked cakes that you didn’t ask for and wouldn’t take money for babysitting your kids when you had to work overtime. We held hands in a semi-circle around her and prayed for her safe passage. We filed into the Gardner Grove Baptist Church, prayed (again), sang, cascaded kind words of our beloved, and filed out in two’s. We buried her on the hill above my grandmother’s unmarked grave.

The second aunt died at the hospital and we celebrated her life in a large Methodist church, only filling about half of the pews. She was my grandmother’s baby sister and made a life and living birthing and raising children. A poem was read. A trio of ladies in African garb sang a selection. We remembered her fondly, even laughed aloud. By then, I’d stopped visiting cemeteries.

The third aunt passed away suddenly. She’d been my uncle’s first wife, a long yellow woman who seemed to possess the sun—adding a little light to each space she entered. Older kin whispered about the marriage that ended before I was born…the bruises, the blacked eyes so swollen they couldn’t be hidden under shades. For her endurance, she was buried in a golden casket. The church, in the heart of the city, filled beyond capacity with mourners spilling into the December chill. We sang and cried only remembering the joy, blotting out the pain.

A haunting thought: Do men ever die?

An exacting answer: Of course, they die. They just never come back.

 

VI.

Places that I pray to return to:

The Low Country in July, tasting salt in the air, listening to Gullah accents spin tales of wayward enslaved people stealing freedom, feeling the warm Atlantic gather at my waist, reveling in the roar of ocean and the healing warmth of the sun; the refined splendor of Martha’s Vineyard in August, feeling the tingle of charm laden sea breezes and a laughable snootiness in the air; the county fair in October that comes with a winter chill chained to its back, the dizzying mix of motion and lights and deep-fried everything that turns thirtysomethings into school aged tots; love that doesn’t need to be validated with sex—just shared spaces, bare skin, long silences; sex that doesn’t have to be sanitized with love—just splayed legs, pink parts, a raw wanting; those first fragile moments of motherhood when the only thing that exists anywhere is uncut, unadulterated, uncompromising love; those divine instances when my boys stand side-by-side, eyes squinted by wide grins, the younger one coaxing his gentle older brother into joy; the alchemy rendered by the blending of Friday night with flattering jeans with high heels with fresh hair-dos and paychecks with generous bartenders and best friends with disco ball lighting with hip stirring bachatas and quick-footed salsas, the resulting bliss of it all; any concert hall, sanctuary, or theater where heavy-set baritones, golden-throated sopranos, and overjoyed altos lift their collective voices in the first few hushed, syncopated chords of “A City Called Heaven”, anticipating the eventual crescendo, the soloist’s anguished beauty, the futile effort to blink back tears of joy; a biblical peace that can only be found in moments of stark, life-pausing awareness; for one ephemeral second—if it were possible—the unmatched comfort and calm of my mother’s embrace.

 

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Kristie Robin Johnson

Kristie Robin Johnson is an educator, essayist, and poet from Augusta, GA. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, AWP honors, and has received other awards and recognition, and has been published in numerous literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. Her first book, High Cotton, was released in 2020 by Raised Voice Press. Learn more at kristierobinjohnson.com.