My first year of college was, for the most part, uneventful. I lived alone in a dorm room despite my assignment to a roommate that I saw, at most, once a week. I had been nervous and excited when my parents unloaded my belongings into the room and left, leaving me to fend for myself when I met my roommate late that night during the middle of August of 1993 in College Park, Maryland. My only solace when they left had been that I wouldn’t be sleeping alone in the room—I had never lived alone before and wasn’t looking forward to it. That first night, as trepidation gripped me, I realized that I had never even gone to as much as a sleepover at a friend’s house during all my young adult years in Indianapolis. It wasn’t The Church or my parents’ strictness at fault for that, I knew, but myself, for having forged no meaningful friendships with females. Still, at sixteen years old, I had no female friend I could call to share my excitement and anxiety about living alone for the first time in my life.
I thought vaguely of Carolyn and wished I’d at least been sensible enough to exchange contact information with her. But because we had merely tolerated each other and had forged an alliance due to our shared unpopularity, I suspect we both silently agreed we didn’t want to be permanent reminders to one another of who we had been, or, rather, who we had not been in high school. In all honesty, I think we were embarrassed by our friendship, and we thought it better that we part without pretending that we wanted each other as memories in a past we hoped college would allow us to deny and ultimately forget.
Yet, as I sat alone on the hard, bare bed feeling suffocated by the smallness of the room and the intensity of my apprehension, I longed for Carolyn’s laughter, smile, or even sympathy. A flicker of pain was ignited in my chest as my mind, of its own accord, wandered to the raw truth of my suffering—that it was Reggie’s laughter, smile, and sympathy that I wanted. But I extinguished the flame before its heat could cause me further discomfort and forced myself to focus on Carolyn’s stutter and imperfect complexion, and I cried.
My sulking was disrupted by the sound of a key turning in the door, and I quickly wiped my face and saw a tall, shapely woman whose smooth, dark brown skin reminded me immediately of Reggie. Her hair was short, styled in attractive natural twists that pointed upward, and I instantly felt at ease. She smiled and extended her hand as she approached me.
“I’m Anita.” Her accent was British, and for some reason I couldn’t keep from chuckling. I’d never heard a Black person speak like English royalty.
I pretended my laughter was due to my joy in meeting her. “Renee.”
“Where are you from?”
I was amazed. I liked her already. “You traveled far.”
She shook her head. “My family moved to the states a few years ago. Right now, they live in New York.”
“Oh.” I stared at her. I couldn’t get over the accent.
We talked for another hour before she decided she’d better remove her luggage from the lobby.
That was the longest conversation we had for the entire year. Apparently, she had a male friend who was more appealing than the dorm room and me, so I prided myself in only two benefits of making her acquaintance: I had ample time to myself, and she referred me to an Ethiopian friend of hers who styled natural hair for a nominal fee.
My first trip home was during Thanksgiving break. Courtney and I booked a flight together, and I surprised myself by genuinely enjoying her company and conversation. It was as if she and I were getting acquainted for the first time. I was actually saddened at the end of our return flight when we returned to our respective campuses. But we’d exchanged numbers, something we hadn’t done before although we could have easily obtained the information from our parents.
I had wanted to see Reggie, but I didn’t. My mother told me in passing—I’d hoped my melancholy wasn’t that apparent—that he had traveled to visit relatives for the vacation.
William stopped by, but I couldn’t have cared less. I could see him anytime I wanted since we were less than an hour apart from each other in Maryland. But both he and I were too busy with our studies to travel that distance, or to make it a priority. It was clear that we’d both moved on, and I had found myself wishing that I could see, at least, Darnell. But he was in the army now, in only-God-knows-what country and I couldn’t bring myself to ask the specifics. I still hadn’t gotten over that he was three years older than he’d let on, and that he had a life wholly unrelated to me. Still, I couldn’t deny that I missed him, and I wished I’d thought to suggest keeping in touch through writing letters. But it was too late for that. Or at least I told myself it was too late.
In retrospect, I think my and Reggie’s dying friendship cast a shadow on all my other relationships, and I couldn’t muster the energy, or desire, to repair them. Life lost its luster, and I found love in the same mundane pursuit that characterized my childhood—academics.
During Christmas vacation, my second trip home, I saw Reggie. But my hopes were deflated as our time together took on the same note it always had: my listening to him talk blissfully about his most recent girlfriend. This time her name was Natalie. I feigned interest. We exchanged numbers, or rather I gave him mine, as he still lived at home, and we went our separate ways as if nothing had changed, or happened, in the year before I left to college.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t beat myself up over not accepting his taking me to the prom. But right then, I was being an optimist, and I couldn’t admit to myself that I cared. So I shrugged off my feelings and immersed myself into doing what I did best: relishing in the artificial glory of honors, awards, and professors’ admiration and approval.
One night shortly before mid-terms were scheduled for second semester, Courtney called my room and when I answered, she said simply, “Pack tonight. We have to go home this weekend.”
I felt my head pound and I tried to remain calm. Inside I tried to quell the panicked fear and dread that was causing my chest to hurt. “What happened?”
I nearly fainted and had to readjust the phone to my ear. I asked Courtney to repeat what she had said.
“Her roommate called our parents. She’s been gone a whole week. No one knows where she is.”
I packed in a frenzy, fearing the worst. From what I gathered, she was last seen with her “boyfriend,” a professional basketball player, and never heard from again. No note, no calls. Nothing. I imagined her body in some wooded area and her picture on a news flash. This couldn’t be good news. I shivered as the word boyfriend echoed in my head. It wasn’t a word we used in our home, at least not relating to any of us. O Christ, this was definitely bad.
I arrived home to find my mother in a daze and my father pacing restlessly. He and my mother were driving to Muncie first thing in the morning, a Wednesday. They were waiting for me and Courtney to arrive so we could keep an eye on Michael and Elijah, and, presumably, so our presence could inspire in our parents solace that at least we were still alive, well, and a healthy extension of the family.
The weekend dragged on, and the house felt lifeless, desolate even, although Michael and Elijah didn’t change the rhythm of their activities. Their screaming, fighting, and rough play was mere background noise as Courtney and I couldn’t find words to communicate our fear and premature grief.
Our parents returned Monday afternoon, a day shy of having been gone an entire week. Spent, after mumbling a stingy hello, they went directly to their room without a word of news. They remained there until late that night, when they woke me and Courtney and told us to come to the living room.
The boys asleep, the house was eerily quiet as we took our seats on the carpeted floor, reserving the couch for our parents. I envisioned what my father would divulge before he spoke: Her body was found strangled, violated, and abandoned, and her professional athlete boyfriend was at large.
Instead, my father said this: “We found your sister.” He ran a hand over his face, and both my sister and I blinked back tears as we studied the sadness in our father’s eyes. “She was pregnant.” The use of the past tense sent me into immediate sobs, and I couldn’t withhold or cease crying. But, thankfully, my father raised his voice above my dramatic display. “But she’s Mrs. Something-or-the-other now, married to that sorry NBA friend of hers.”
I was so overwhelmed by what I imagined had happened that it took me a full minute to register the truth. Overcome with relief, I cried more. I wasn’t able to get a hold of myself until minutes later. When I did, my relief slowly gave way to shock, dismay, and, finally, anger.
My parents were already retreating to their room when Courtney stood, shaking her head, glassy-eyed, apparently nursing the same emotions as I.
“How could she do this to us?” I spat out, feeling the tears well in my eyes again.
She turned to me so quickly that I knew it was empathy or agreement she was offering when her hand gripped my shoulder and she turned me to face her, her fingers digging painfully into my skin. “What?”
The sound of her voice threw me off, and I lifted my gaze to see her eyes glistening in disbelief, apparently at what I’d said.
“How could she do this to us?” My repetition of the words was less heart-felt, and more uncertain, as if the question mark was in seeking Courtney’s approval instead of agreement.
“No,” she said in the same tone I’d used in my initial inquiry. “You mean, how could they do this to us?”
I stared at my sister, as if seeing her for the first time, and I felt that I didn’t recognize her although nothing had changed of her copper brown skin and the attractive thickness of her eyebrows fading into one. “What?” My voice echoed the emotion I’d heard in her initial inquiry.
“You heard me the first time.” She gripped both my shoulders and shook me, her eyes narrowing into slits.
“Listen to me,” she said in a whisper that I understood was to keep my parents from overhearing and to temper the growing disgust she felt for me right then. “It’s time for you to wake up and see the world for what it is.”
Stunned, I listened.
“Patricia is twenty years old. She has a right to do whatever the hell she wants with her life, and it ain’t a thing you, I, or our parents can do about it. If you have half the guts or sense as she does, then you’ll do the same when you get the chance.”
I opened my mouth to speak.
“Shut up, girl, and listen to me.” Her grip didn’t loosen, and I realized that in her own perverted way, Courtney was showing love and concern. Her voice was still a whisper, but I processed every word as if she were screaming in my face.
“If it wasn’t for the stupid ideas Dad has about our life and The Church,” she said, and I felt the warmness of her breath and the cruelty of her words, “she wouldn’t have to hide anything at all. She could’ve told you, me, and the man and woman down the hall what she wanted to do with her life.” She released my grip once she had secured my attention.
She sighed, shaking her head. “I feel sorry for her. And you. And me. For being born into this retarded family and Dad’s fanaticism that he imagines is somehow paving our way to Heaven’s golden gates.” She contorted her face. “Who lives like this?” She motioned her hand to the house. “No music, no movies, no real clothes.”
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “I swear to God, if I had someone love me like James loves Patricia.” She paused, and it didn’t escape me that Courtney was the only one in the household who knew the boy’s name. “I’d leave this God-forsaken family and religion if I could.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Certainly, she wasn’t saying what I thought she was.
“I don’t know if there’s a God,” she mused. “But if there is, it sure as hell ain’t the God of this house.”
I felt my hands tremble in realization of the magnitude of her sin. She was questioning the existence of her Creator. I was suddenly terrified of my older sister, and my repulsion for her sentiments was palpable in my throat. I feared I would vomit. But I stood stark still, unsure what other demons she had lurking within her.
Perhaps, she had known, had known the entire time, and was merely playing the role of a good daughter to appease our parents. As the theory materialized in my mind, it grew in plausibility until it was a certainty to me. Even if she didn’t disagree with our sister’s actions, was it really humanly possible to react so viciously in support of her when only moments before we didn’t even know if Patricia was alive? It would be only natural to first show relief, gratefulness, something to suggest a mental reality shift. But Courtney showed no shock, no relief, and no emotion upon hearing the news. As my mind retraced the events of the past week, I reinterpreted her quiet as, yes, nervousness, fear, and anxiety, but not for the same reasons I had felt these emotions. She was hoping Patricia could pull it off with the least amount of damage control.
I studied Courtney’s eyes and saw nothing in their darkness except coldness and guilt, a testimony of being an accomplice in crime. I lowered my gaze, crawling inside myself and realizing that I was the only daughter left in the family. I was too upset to cry, too unsettled to grieve, and too aware of my predicament to be so foolish as to open my heart to someone I could not trust. So I did what I learned from my older sisters. I lied.
“Yes,” I said as if subdued, “you’re right.” I nodded, feigning humility. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Thank you.”
A moment later, her glare softened and she half-heartedly threw an arm over my shoulder and walked me to my room. “It’s all right. At least we know she’s okay.”
My peaked awareness allowed me to detect the obligatory tone of her last sentiment, as if expressed as an afterthought upon realizing, finally, that it was what she should have said initially, instead of the other way around.
The year 1994 marked my second year in college, and while I was mulling over my choices in majors, I resigned myself to my heart’s fate. I would forever be Reginald’s “good friend,” the one who listens to his talk of the women he loves and wants to marry, not a woman in either of those categories. We spent the summer together, much like old times, but knowledge of Natalie was always there, and he wasn’t shy to talk enthusiastically about her beauty, talents, and promise.
Already, at the onset of the school year, she was the favored vote for Homecoming Queen, and the football season had barely begun. It was somewhat of a relief to return to school in the fall. Perhaps, part of my decreased apprehension was that I knew who my roommate would be. Anita’s friend, my personal natural-hair stylist, and I turned out to be good friends. Her American name was Felicia, and although I hated the concept of foreigners changing their names or accepting Western nicknames to free Americans of the discomfort of a tongue twister, one look at her given name and I accepted my friend’s selection of the name Felicia as one of God’s small mercies. I never called her anything else. But my good memory rendered me able to recognize her birth name on postal mail and differentiate it from wrong addressees, even if their names were just as eccentric. Ironically, unlike Anita, Felicia had no distinct accent although I could detect a faint trace of her native language when she spoke.
Our only, and eventually most significant, point of diversion in shared interests was my increasing spirituality and love for Christ. Somehow the night my parents returned home with news of Patricia’s whereabouts, my life changed and my faith increased. It was as if God sent Courtney as a personal sign to me that laxity in devotion to Him was a cancerous disease of the heart, and my nonchalance of that year would eventually lead me down my sister’s destructive path.
I took heed and attended church services more regularly and joined an on-campus Bible study group that had a list of group members who volunteered to evangelize to the student body on a rotating monthly schedule. My group’s week was mid-November, and already, only weeks after school commenced, we were meeting twice a week to discuss our strategies in calling people to accept Jesus in their lives. I wanted our group to be the best, utilizing both creativity and assertiveness as opposed to the half-hearted flyers tacked to campus message boards—passivity in inviting people to God.
I was planning my suggestions to present at the meeting one early October evening when I received yet another call from Courtney. There was in her voice the same urgency as she had had when phoning about Patricia the year before.
Too exhausted from her theatrics, I rolled my eyes and let my exaggerated exhale tell her that I wasn’t game this time. “What now?”
She caught the hint. “In case you have time to be bothered,” she said, and I could almost taste her cruelty, “your cousin Darnell is dead.”
The dial tone was an ominous confirmation of what she had said. I gripped the receiver so desperately that my hand hurt. I felt my stomach churn and I grew lightheaded. Dropping the phone suddenly, I clutched my stomach and doubled over, feeling the heaving before I realized what was happening. The last thing I remember was vomiting and feeling sick all over again at the sight of it.
I woke in the nurse’s office at school and was told that I had fainted. It took a moment to realize the reason for my fainting in the first place. At the reminder, I felt myself grow weak again but I mentally fought the urge until I felt strength and determination return to my body.
My family. O God, my family! I had to get home as soon as I could.
Not bothering to collaborate with my sister, I booked my own flight home and hoped, even in the wake of this personal tragedy, that we wouldn’t cross paths at the airport.
We didn’t. She was already home when I arrived.
The house held a distant, melancholy atmosphere, and I soon found my place in the slow motion of the days leading up to the funeral. I settled into my room and spent most of my time staring out the window, pondering the aloof manner of nature in continuing the mundane normalcy of dry, colored leaves of autumn as if nothing, absolutely nothing that upset the entire meaning of life, had occurred at all.
Two or three days after I arrived, I began to feel dizzy and lightheaded and my vision blurred. I woke, feeling a knotting pain in my head and a pulsing ache behind one of my eyes. Dull black spots appeared wherever I looked, but it took too much energy to keep narrowing my eyes to make out what I should be seeing, so I shut my eyes and wondered if I had the strength to make it to the window.
I thought little of my condition until I heard a lowered voice near my door, whispering in an apparent effort to keep me from hearing.
“Has she come out at all? Not even to eat?”
The last word inspired my opening my eyes. The voice sounded familiar. It was the voice of a woman, a mother. The knotting in my head tightened until a throbbing pain pulsated in my temples. I was expending too much energy in trying to remember my last meal, and it hurt too much to attempt to discern whose voice I was hearing. I gave up.
The door opened.
The sound aggravated the pain, and the throbbing intensified. Slowly, I closed my lids, unable to turn my head in the direction of whoever had just entered. I hoped they wouldn’t talk to me. I feared the slightest sound would make my head explode.
A warm hand settled on my forehead, and a familiar scent of perfume entered my nostrils, relaxing me, despite the pounding in my head. The kind gesture reminded me of Darnell, and I felt my stomach churn again. I gritted my teeth behind my closed lips and willed myself not to get sick. I didn’t have the energy to sit up.
“Ray, honey,” the voice whispered in a tone so soothing that the knot loosened and the pain subsided just slightly. “Have you eaten?”
The requirement of using my mental faculties made the knot tighten again. I turned my head slightly to one side but couldn’t muster the energy to turn it all the way to the other to complete my response.
Soft lips brushed my forehead after she lifted her hand from it. “It’s okay, honey. You don’t have to talk. We’ll bring you something.”
Slowly, I fluttered my eyes open, but my vision was blurred and spotted, so I couldn’t see her clearly. I felt the weight of her body ease off the bed, and immediately my head pounded more forcefully. I didn’t want her to leave.
“It’s okay honey,” she said again. She gently loosened my tightened grip on her hand. “I’ll just bring you a plate.”
She stood upright and brushed the back of her hand on my cheek before starting for the door. I saw her blurred figure retreating and felt a lingering sense of sadness at seeing her go. She quietly slipped out without closing the door completely, as if sensing that that small bit of noise would be too much for me to bear. I felt tears well in my eyes.
I needed her to come back. The woman was Delores—Reginald’s mother, and I wanted her by my side so I could hold her hand in mine.
As if God himself had told her what I needed most, Delores Matthews became my best friend that sober week in October, a month I would forever think of as one of the saddest. She held my hand, stroked my back, and held me without ever needing to ask what I wanted or needed at a given moment.
Years later I learned that the funeral preparation had been delayed, and that most of it was due to my family’s disagreement over whether or not the casket should be open. Neither Uncle Marvin nor Aunt Marcella was in a position to make the decision themselves. Marcella was comatose for all intents and purposes and had to be drugged in order to sit calmly at the funeral. My mother’s brother, although holding the appearance of normalcy, was unable to decide. In recognition of his limited abilities, he officially turned over the authority to my parents.
I knew none of this at the time. I was engrossed in my own world of grief. On the day of the funeral, I sat next to Delores in a limousine reserved for family and realized, too, only years later that she was the only non-family member in the limo that day. And I understood that she had been there only for me.
Likewise, at the funeral, Delores sat next to me, in the section reserved for family, and held my left hand the entire time, alternating between squeezing it gently and massaging it with her own. We sat in the front pew, only feet from the open glass-covered casket, and I felt sick, unable to understand how anyone could consider this unobstructed view as honoring the family. At best, it was disturbing and, at worst, torturous.
I sat with my right hand lying limp in my lap as Delores coddled the other, and I was unable to lift my eyes from the dark cloth of my dress. I willed myself not to gaze at the decorated, polished wood that enclosed the body of my cousin. If I felt my head lifting instinctively, mostly at the accentuated words of the preacher of Marvin and Marcella’s church, I forced my eyes to wander, to study the strangeness of a house of worship so familiar, yet so drastically different from The Church.
The church was smaller than my father’s, and it bore none of the images with which I was familiar. The only likeness of Christ was a painting hanging on the right wall. When my eyes grazed it the first time, I couldn’t keep from staring at it, wondering if it was my blurred vision returning to me or if I were in fact seeing Jesus with brown, not white, skin. As I studied the curly coarseness of this Jesus’ dark hair that was strangely similar to mine, I concluded that it was not my vision. Their Savior was a Black man. The realization stunned and disturbed me.
Suddenly everything made sense. The insistence on natural hair. Their Afro-centricity. Darnell’s sudden interest in the Nation of Islam. Even my mother herself took on a new persona. Her natural hair. Her own form of African pride. Her forbidding me and my sisters permed hair. Had this been her form of Christianity before she married my father?
The preacher’s mention of Darnell prompted my turning my attention back to the tragic event that required our presence today. Sighing silently, I returned my gaze to my black dress.
I heard but couldn’t bring myself to actually listen as the preacher droned on about my cousin being in a better place. Darnell was now in the company of angels. He was in eternal rest. His soul was roaming free in Heaven.
What if he isn’t?
The question stunned me. I hadn’t asked it of my own accord, but I couldn’t deny that it had sat dormant at the back of my mind since I learned of Darnell’s sudden death. Yet, at that moment, I found myself examining the query, as if outside my mind, and found that it had wedged a place for itself there, and I was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to remove it.
What if he isn’t in a better place? What if he isn’t in the company of angels? What if he doesn’t even deserve Heaven?
The preacher described Darnell as intelligent, brave, determined, and admirable—adjectives eulogists reserved for occasions like these. I wondered if he really meant it. If he really believed what he was saying. I could think of a thousand words to describe my cousin right then, but there was only one that sat burning at the back of my mind and throat, inspiring the familiar knotting of a migraine.
My eyes welled as I realized just how much I hated Darnell right then. How utterly stupid, how outrageously idiotic of him to have joined the army, of all things. And for what? He hadn’t even been in the service two full years and already he was proven dispensable. And what did we get in return for all his hopes and dreams of world travel, of pursuing a higher education? Meaningless trinkets. A red, white, and blue cloth and a cheap pendant to decorate our walls. And he’d see none of it.
If he was so damned brave, I wanted to scream to all who concocted wars for people like Darnell to die in, then send your son, send your daughter to sacrifice their lives for what you believe so ardently in.
Sniffles rippled throughout the church, and my anger was incensed. The mourners sat in obligatory grief, fighting tears and nodding pensively as the preacher’s eulogy grew more poignant. But I hated all of the tissue-carrying, eye-dabbing grievers. There was no choice for them, for any of us. We had to mourn. It was grief born of obligation, not sentiment. It was only Marvin, Marcella, and my family who had a right to cry, to wail. We were the only ones who even knew Darnell well enough to have felt love, gratefulness, or irritation in his presence.
The melodious sound of the all-Black choir inspired my looking forward. Their words tormented me in their soulful gloom and beauty. The tears spilled from my eyes and I dropped my head as the soloist’s sonorous gospel reverberated throughout the church, echoed by the powerful choir. I wanted them to keep singing, and I wanted them to stop.
But mostly, I wanted Darnell back so I could tell him how upset I was with him for leaving.
I hadn’t seen Reginald the entire time except in passing until the night before I was scheduled to return to school. As usual, I was in my room staring at the ceiling and waiting for the throbbing in my head to cease. But it was my mother, not Reginald himself, who asked if I wanted to take a walk with him. I turned my head from where it lay on my pillow and met my mother’s gaze. I saw softness in the dark eyes she and Darnell’s father shared, and sadness overwhelmed me. I knew she was only trying to make me feel better.
I shook my head. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, let alone pulling clothes from my closet or packed luggage to wear during the stroll. “I’m fine.”
She smiled gently and patted my hand. “I think you should go. Please.”
Her last word prompted me to meet her gaze. I couldn’t read her expression, but I understood that it was important to her that I took the walk.
Outside, Reggie and I walked in silence down the sidewalk for several minutes. The night was uncomfortably chilly, but the bitter cold of Indianapolis winter was still at least a month away.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” he said as if exhaling the words, breaking the silence. He lifted his gaze to the sky and tugged at the lapels of his thick coat and secured three buttons before pushing his bare hands into the pockets.
My gloved hands were already snug in the pockets of my coat, but I shivered as the wind blew in my face, lifting with it some dry leaves that scratched the sidewalk before rising and falling into the street. My curiosity heightened, I glanced at him and furrowed my brows. He wouldn’t look at me.
“But I think—” He drew in a deep breath and exhaled, and I saw the soft cloud of breath even in the darkness. “Especially now, it’s only fair that you know.”
Unsure if I had the fortitude for more tragic news, I looked away, bracing myself for what I already knew I wouldn’t view as justice, despite his or my mother’s feelings on the matter. I didn’t care anymore about knowing things, about, in fact, knowing at all. In its own way ignorance was a blessing. I was already wishing someone had told me that Darnell was in some far away country and would never return, instead of the raw ugliness of the truth.
“I’m sure you already know about his sister, but I don’t know if you—”
“His sister?” I halted my slow steps to face him.
Reggie stared at me, eyes narrowed, blinking. Then his face contorted. “Nobody told you about her?”
“Darnell has a sister?”
Reggie’s lids closed slowly as he shook his head and rolled his eyes toward the sky, apparently perturbed, as if this talk was to bear more than he could himself. He pursed his lips then cursed.
“Didn’t your parents tell you anything?”
It was a rhetorical question, but even if it weren’t, I would be unable to answer it. I had no idea what he was talking about. His frustration eventually dissipated and he told me more than I wanted to know. Not wanting to believe it, I cut the conversation short and ran to the house to confront my mother. Reluctantly, she confirmed what Reginald had told me and then went on to share a story of her own. Her primary reason, she said, for not telling me earlier was my father, and of course Reginald himself.
Here’s what I learned that night: Darnell and Denise were twins, born while my aunt and uncle were part of the Nation of Islam, an organization that, as it turns out, had sparked my mother’s interest briefly, though not my father’s. Denise had some rare congenital disease that neither Reggie nor my mother knew much about. She died at the age of eight, two years after Marcella underwent a hysterectomy. Denise’s death sent Darnell into a deep depression that resulted in his normally competitive academics turning to failures and an eventual expulsion from school for his behavior. His mother attempted to home-school him, but she re-entered him into the school system at age ten. However, he was placed in the “Special Education” stream, mostly because of his falling behind.
Unsatisfied with Darnell’s progress, Marcella identified the primary problem: They needed a change. They couldn’t expect Darnell, or themselves, to truly move on if they continued living in the same home and city where he and Denise grew up. The only problem was, Now what? Marcella suggested that Marvin phone his sister who lived in Indiana to see about moving there. But Marvin was keeping only cordial contact with her because her husband, my father, disassociated from the family years ago after Marvin chose to remain in the Nation of Islam instead of joining a proper church. My father’s reason was simple. He didn’t want his family “corrupted” by their religion. Although my uncle and his wife had long since left the Nation, the families remained at odds mostly due to what my mother called my father’s stubbornness. Nevertheless, she welcomed the idea of having her brother close by. She felt that there was only so much my father could resist if they were neighbors.
Reginald’s parents, having tired of Queens themselves for reasons unrelated to Darnell’s family, job searched until they both landed jobs in Indianapolis. Due to “White Flight,” the phenomenon wherein White people moved out of neighborhoods when Black families moved in, several houses were for sale in the neighborhood where my family lived. The original plan was for my aunt and uncle to live in the house the Matthews had found. However, Marvin and Marcella, who were not as educated or qualified as their friends, were not so lucky in securing jobs, so Carl and Delores Matthews bought the home themselves and agreed for the couple and their son to live with them until they could find work and purchase the home from them or buy themselves one of the available ones in the neighborhood.
Marvin eventually found work in a post office, but his salary couldn’t cover the mortgage on a house, especially one in our neighborhood, so he and his wife moved with their son to a small apartment and took advantage of whatever government benefits they could to make a comfortable life for their now only child.
The change in Darnell was miraculous, and they attributed it to one thing: Me.
I reminded him of his sister. This was simply because Denise and I looked alike. I favored his sister most likely because I favored my mother and Denise her father. It was merely a matter of genetics. Nevertheless, upon meeting me, it was as if he had sister all over again, and he grew attached. Which explained why, when we first met, he had said he was my age—eight, the same age his twin sister had been when she died. It also explained why his family visited several times a week although the twenty-minute drive in my aunt and uncle’s struggling car was inconvenient, not to mention their hectic job schedules.
The news both flattered and destroyed me. I wished I had known. That someone had told me. Perhaps, then, things would have turned out differently. But, my mother said this, as if it were supposed to make me feel better: It would have broken Darnell’s heart for me to know, because then I might decide I didn’t want to be his sister, and it would be as if he’d lost Denise all over again.
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This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
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