American Street is an evocative and powerful coming-of-age story perfect for fans of Everything, Everything; Bone Gap; and All American Boys. In this stunning debut novel, Pushcart-nominated author Ibi Zoboi draws on her own experience as a young Haitian immigrant, infusing this lyrical exploration of America with magical realism and vodou culture.On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.
But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own. Keep scrolling to read the first three chapters of American Street by Ibi Zoboi!
If only I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone. On one side of the glass doors are the long lines of people with their photos and papers that prove that they belong here in America, that they are allowed to taste a bit of this free air. On the other side is me, pressing my fore- head against the thick see-through wall. My shoulder hurts from the weight of the carry-on bag. I refuse to put it down for fear that they will take it away, too.
“Manman,” I whisper to the glass, hoping that my voice will ease through, fly above all those people’s heads, travel on a plane back to New York, and reach her.
We had been holding hands for courage when we arrived at Customs in Kennedy Airport. Manman had carried all our important documents in a big yellow envelope tucked into her large purse—our passports, her visa, and the papers to prove that we are who we say we are, that we are from the city of Port-au-Prince; that I am an American citizen by birth and I left for good when I was only an infant; that we own a little house in the neighborhood of Delmas; and that Manman has a business selling brand-name pépé—secondhand American clothes. All these things to prove that we are only visiting relatives and plan to return home to Haiti.
But how could they have read our minds? How could they have known that my mother’s big sister in Detroit had been sending us money to leave Haiti forever? How could they have known that we didn’t plan to go back?
“Ms. Valerie Toussaint, I need you to come with me,” the man had said. His voice was like the pebbled streets in Delmas, rough and unsteady as they pulled Manman’s hand from mine; as they motioned for me to continue through the line with Manman’s desperate pleas trailing behind me—Alé, Fabiola! Go, Fabiola! Don’t worry. I will meet you there!—and as I got on the connecting flight from New York to Detroit. But too much has happened for me to cry now. On the plane ride leaving Port-au-Prince for JFK, I had curled into my mother and together we looked out the window. Up high in the sky, all the problems we had left behind seemed so tiny—as if I could pick them up one by one and fling them out of the universe.
On the flight to Detroit, I am alone. I look down at America—its vastness resembling a huge mountain. I felt as if I was just a pebble in the valley.
My mother will be on the next plane, I tell myself over and over again. Just like when she sends me ahead on my own by foot, or by tap-tap, or by motortaxi. I tell myself that this won’t be any different.
Here in Detroit Metro Airport, there are no long lines to show papers and proof to uniformed people. I ease into America’s free air like a tourist returning home. With every step I take out of the terminal, I look back, and up, and around, as if my mother will appear from out of nowhere. I search for her face in the crowd of new arrivals rushing past me—some with their eyes as weary as mine, others tracking every too-bright light, every movement of each person around them, peering into every corner of this too-big place. But none of them is Manman.
I spot a lady official who is wearing the same uniform as the ones who took my mother away. I take several long steps toward her, dragging the carry-on behind me. My shoulder is sore. “Excuse me, miss? I am looking for Valerie Toussaint coming from New York,” I say with my very best English.
“I’m sorry, young lady. I have no idea who that is. And there isn’t another flight coming in from New York into Detroit till the morning. If you’re waiting for someone to pick you up, follow the signs that read ‘baggage claim,’” she says, and starts to walk away.
I shake my head. “Valerie Toussaint in New York,” I say. “They took her. They say she can’t come to the United States.”
“You had someone with you in New York?” I nod.
“Is she being detained?”
I stare and blink and shake my head. I search my brain for this word, trying to find the Creole word for it, or a French one—détenir: to hold back, to keep from moving.
The woman places both hands on her hips. Her blue uniform shirt stretches over her big chest and two buttons look like they will pop. A small black strap on the shoulder of her shirt reads TSA. Her fancy gold badge says she’s an officer and another thinner badge on the other side of her black tie says her name is Deborah Howard.
“I can’t help. You’ve been standing here all this time and your luggage is still at baggage claim. Now, follow the signs to pick up your things. I’m sure you have family waiting for you.” She speaks slowly, as if I am stupid.
I purse my lips and clench my fists. How do I tell her that I am not going to the other side without Manman? How do I say that my mother has not seen her big sister, Matant Majorie, since they were teenagers and Manman wanted nothing more than to hold her face and plant a big wet kiss on her cheek? But the English words don’t come as fast as the many Creole insults at the tip of my tongue for this Deborah Howard.
“All right. Then I will personally escort you to baggage claim,” Deborah Howard says.
“No,” I say. “I have to be with Valerie Toussaint.”
Deborah Howard steps closer to me. At first she smells of her freshly ironed uniform, but then I smell the faint scent of cigarettes and oily food lingering behind her starchy presence. “Look. Just come back with a relative in the morning to straighten all this out. Do you understand what I just said?”
I don’t make a move and I hold this moment for a little bit. Then I nod. “I understand,” I say. My English is not as smooth. “I will come back.”
Our four big suitcases stand alone between two luggage carousels like orphaned children. I want to ask Deborah Howard what Manman will use to brush her teeth and wash her face tonight. But I’m afraid if I give her anything to take to my mother, she will keep it and sell it at the market—if Detroit is anything like Port-au-Prince. Officer Howard grabs a nearby cart and a man helps her lift up the suitcases. I rush toward them to make sure that they don’t take anything.
Night is a starlit blanket outside, and the cold air reaches my bones. I have on a long-sleeved shirt and it is not enough.
“Hope somebody’s bringing you a coat,” the man says, and leaves the cart right there on the sidewalk as I hug myself and rub my arms. I watch the cars pass by.
I look around and then stretch out my arms on each side of me. I pray that Manman will get to taste this cold, free air before she rests her eyes tonight, wherever they are keeping her. And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where there is good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.
The cold threatens to swallow me whole. Manman said that cold air is better for our skin. It will keep us fresh and youthful. In Haiti, we used to travel to the top of the mountain ranges near Au Cap for their cool winds. But here, I will turn into a block of ice.
America is more colorful than I imagined. The people are a mix of white and not-white. If only Detroit had a bunch of blan, it would be easier for me to pick out a single black woman and three teenage girls, but many of the women look like my aunt with their brown faces; black, shiny straightened hair; and their big, dark coats that hide their shapely figures.
I search the faces of all the people passing me and think of my cousins—the oldest, Chantal, and the twins, Primadonna and Princess, who are my age. And my aunt Marjorie. I have not seen them since I was a baby. How will they recognize me?
I am so hungry and tired. I want a container of hot, sizzling fritay from the streets of Delmas, my mother’s warm, thick arm in mine, and her strong shoulder so I can rest my head.
A girl steps in front of me as I fidget with one of the suitcases. She lifts up her phone to my face.
“Hold up, I’m trying to see if you look like somebody,” she says.
I can only tell she’s a girl by the shape of her body—but her oversized jacket, loose jeans, high-top sneakers, and hat with three bumblebees on it make her almost look like a boy. I examine her round face, her deep-set eyes, and her cheeks. “Princess!” I say.
“Yep. That’s you. Dang! Where you been all this time?” Princess turns and calls behind her, “Yo, I found her! She’s over here!”
I reach to kiss her on the cheek and give her a big hug, but she steps back.
“Nah, I’m good, cuzz. Where’s your moms?”
Another girl runs toward us—Chantal. She’s smaller than Princess, with black-framed glasses—almost twenty years old. Primadonna is behind her—tall with long, flowing hair reaching down to her elbows. She’s wearing sunglasses even though it’s nighttime.
“Fabiola!” Chantal calls.
I reach to hug her because she’s my favorite. Chantal is the one who posts links to articles and sends me messages on Facebook. She’s the one who told her friends how excited she was about her cousin coming from Haiti.
“Where’s Aunt Val?” Chantal asks, looking around and be- hind me.
I shake my head, unsure of what to say. What if they are mad that my mother didn’t make it through? What if they tell my aunt and she is even angrier?
Primadonna moves closer to me, and I look her up and down to see that she is much taller because of her fancy high heels. She lives up to her name with her diva hair and sun- glasses at night.
“Hi, Fabiola,” she sings. Her voice is like a billion tiny bells. “So good to finally meet you. Call me Donna.”
Princess steps in front of me. “And I’m Pri. Not Princess. Just Pri. And big sis over here is Chant.”
Princess and Primadonna, or Pri and Donna now—my twin cousins. Les Marassa Jumeaux, who are as different as hot pepper and honey. Their faces are mirrors of each other, but their bodies are opposites—one tall and skinny and the other short and chunky—as if Princess ruled their mother’s womb and Primadonna was an underfed peasant.
Chantal pushes up her eyeglasses and looks over at the bag- gage claim. “It’s fine if you call me Chantal. So where is your mom?”
I turn back toward the busyness of the airport. I wonder if my mother is waiting for her flight to Detroit and praying that I don’t worry about her. I wonder if she is still arguing with those uniformed people and if she has thrown those important documents in their faces and cursed their children’s children. Manman will not go quietly. She will fight with her claws to get to me. “She’s not here yet” is all I say.
“How long do we have to wait for her? We didn’t pay for parking,” Chantal says. I feel like she’s looking straight through me.
“Well.” I pause. “They said she’s being detained in New York.”
“Detained? What? She wasn’t on the plane with you?” Donna asks.
My face goes hot. “From Haiti, yes. But when we got to Customs,” I start to say, but my voice cracks. “They took her into a room. But maybe she will be on the next plane?”
“Shit! We thought that might happen,” Pri says.
“Shut up, Pri. Don’t scare her,” Donna says. She pulls Pri aside and takes out her cell phone. “I’m calling Ma.”
Chantal shakes her head, then turns to me. “This doesn’t sound right, Fabiola,” she says as she grabs my hand and pulls me back inside. We wait in line for a long time at the Delta Air Lines counter before finally reaching the man at the desk. “Hello, sir? We’re looking for a passenger who might be on the next flight from New York.”
Chantal’s English is like that of the newspeople on TV. Her voice is high and soft, and every sentence sounds like a question, even when she gives them my name and my mother’s name. It’s as if she isn’t sure of anything and this uniformed man behind the desk and the computer will have all the answers in the universe.
I spell out Manman’s name for Chantal, who then spells it out for the man behind the counter. He prints Chantal a piece of paper and she steps off to the side. I follow her as she starts searching her phone for answers.
“What’s your mother’s birthday?”
I tell her. Then she asks if my mother has a middle name. I tell her that, too. She shakes her head. Chantal shows me her phone.
My mother’s name is on the screen. All the other words and numbers I don’t understand.
“Fabiola, your mother’s going to be sent to an immigration detention center in New Jersey. She’s not coming to Detroit,” Chantal says. She pauses and the corners of her mouth turn down. “They’re planning on sending her back to Haiti.”
I can see Pri and Donna watching me from a few feet away. Donna has hung up the phone. Her brows are furrowed and she bites her bottom lip. The same look is on Pri’s face.
I am quiet. Then I say, “What?”
She repeats what she said, but I only hear sending her back to Haiti over and over again.
If there were no blood vessels, no rib cage, no muscles holding up my heart to where it beats in my chest, it would’ve fallen out onto the floor.
I set my mother’s carry-on down on the floor. “If New Jersey is still in the United States, then we can go get her. We can ex- plain everything and show them that her papers are good,” I say. My voice trembles.
Chantal shakes her head and puts her hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know if that’s how it works, Fabiola.”
Chantal steps away from me and talks to her sisters with her arms crossed. Her face looks as if she is carrying the weight of all our problems on her head. We make eye contact and she smiles a little. She comes over and takes my hand. “Come on, cuzz. Let’s go home.”
I don’t move.
I remember all those times in Port-au-Prince, standing in the open market or at an intersection waiting for my mother as the sun went down and it started to get dark and she still didn’t arrive. Even as the busy streets of Delmas began to empty out and no one but vagabon and MINUSTAH troops passed by on motorbikes and trucks, I waited.
And she always came. She’s never left me alone.
“Donna just spoke to Ma. She wants us to bring you home.” She tugs at my arm, but still, I don’t move.
“Fabiola, my mother is gonna handle it, all right? She’s the one who sent for you both in the first place. She’ll make a few phone calls, and before you know it, your mom will be here.” Chantal’s voice is candy—sweet but firm.
She takes off her thick, long scarf and wraps it around my shoulders—a gesture that only my mother has ever done for me. Back in Haiti, it was always just me and Manman. But now, my world has ballooned and in it are these three cousins, and my aunt, too. Family takes care of each other, I tell myself. We will get my manman.
We leave the airport. It feels like I’m leaving part of me behind—a leg, an arm. My whole heart.
Darkness seeps into every crack and corner of this Detroit. Even with a few lampposts dotting the streets, I can’t see the breadth and depth of this city that is my birthplace, that is now my home. I squint to see if the big mansions I’ve seen on American TV will glow or sparkle in the dark. I hope to catch a glimpse of the very tops of the tall buildings, but the car is moving too fast—with its fancy seats, too-loud music, and the scent of shiny new things.
Chantal sits so close to the steering wheel, her small body enveloped by the leather seat, her hands steady. Donna sits in the passenger seat and she keeps checking her reflection in the rearview mirror, the sun visor mirror, and her phone. She pulls out a big brush from her bag and brushes the ends of her long hair. Pri is next to me in the back and turns on her phone to stare at the screen. Everything is quiet, tense, until Chantal changes the music and turns the volume up really loud. The car sways a little because Pri starts to dance as she says, “Aww shit! Yo, turn that shit up some more, Chant!”
The bass reaches my insides, but it’s not enough to shake the thought of my mother from my mind. I lean my forehead against the backseat window and try to see past the speeding dark and into this new world called Detroit. I try to take it all in, even the heavy music, so I can save every bit for my mother. I remind myself to smile, because finally I am here on this side of the good life.
We pull onto a smaller street and park at the corner. Chantal turns the music off and the car is still. I stare out the window. There are no mansions or big buildings here. The small houses are so close together, they might as well be holding hands.
Donna helps me out of the car. “Welcome home, Fabiola!” she sings.
The front door to a small white house swings open. There are a few steps and a narrow porch leading up to that door. I want nothing more than to rush in to let the house’s warmth wrap around my cold body. A dimly lit lamp shines a light on the person standing at the door, and I recognize the face. It’s like Manman’s, but rounder and thicker. They have the same deep-set eyes, the same thick eyebrows that will never go away, no matter how many times they wax or pluck them. But she doesn’t smile like my mother always does. Half her face barely moves, frozen from her stroke. Manman was supposed to be here taking care of that face.
She is fatter than Manman, but her clothes are smaller and tighter and shorter. Wait till my mother sees her big sister dressed like a teenager at a Sweet Micky concert, oh!
Matant Jo last saw me in person when I was a tiny baby, and since then only through Facebook photos. My aunt comes toward me, arms extended wide. She hugs me tight and I breathe in her smell. My mother has been the only family I’ve known my whole life, and here, in my aunt’s arms, my world feels bigger, warmer.
When Matant Jo lets go, she says, “Valerie was supposed to be here. So what happened, eh?” I recognize her deep voice from all those long-distance phone calls with the 313 number. Manman said that Matant Jo used to have the sweetest bird-song voice—so sweet that she could make a man fall in love with her just by offering him a glass of water.
“Matant, they said they are detaining her,” I say.
“They’re sending her to New Jersey. They’re not gonna let her in,” Chantal adds as she takes off her boots by the door.
“But she’s already in,” Donna says. She sits on the arm of the living-room couch and slides off her coat. “Why would they send her to a whole other state just to send her back to Haiti, Ma?”
“Yeah, Ma, that’s fucked up.” Pri drags my bags to the bottom of the stairs, then lifts one onto the first few steps. “So trying to come to America from the wrong country is a crime?”
My aunt looks at my four big suitcases and her face falls. Then she inhales deep and only one shoulder raises up to meet her breath. She shakes her head as if she’s already given up.
“I will try, but . . . ,” she starts to say. “These things, Fabiola . . . they are so complicated, yes?”
“Matant Jo, n’ap jwen yon fason,” I say in Creole. “We will find a way.”
“English, please.” She stops to stare at me. “I hope your mother really sent you to that English-speaking school I paid all that money for.”
“Yes, and I had one more year to graduate. Thank you.”
“Good. Leave your mother to me. In the meantime, you will finish your junior year with Pri and Donna, okay?” she says. A bit of Haiti is peppered in her English words—the accent has not completely disappeared.
“English!” she yells, and I jump.
Pri laughs while coming back down the stairs. “Ma, don’t be so hard on her. You finally got the little good girl you prayed for. She looks like she’s on that straight and narrow.”
“I thought I was your good girl?” Chantal whines.
“You?” Matant Jo laughs. “You were my only hope. You think it was my dream for you to end up at community college? All those good grades? That big SAT score, and Wayne County Community College is all you have to show for it?”
“Here we go again,” Pri mumbles as she comes to stand next to me.
Chantal sighs. “Who would’ve been driving you around, Ma, if I went away to college? Who would’ve been looking out for Pri and Donna if I left?” she says.
Chantal looks smaller without her coat. Her frame is more like mine, with her broad chest and thin legs. Everything she’s said sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders. I decide then and there that we will be the second set of twins in this family. I will pay attention to what she does and how she talks. She smiles when she sees me staring at her.
Matant Jo sucks her teeth long and hard. She pulls me to- ward her and removes Chantal’s scarf from around my shoul- ders. “Don’t concern yourself with my crazy daughters. Come on, girl. You must be hungry.”
“Wi, Matant,” I say again, but try to swallow my words. It’s habit. She’s never said anything to me over the phone about speaking only in English.
“You are going to have to pay me each time you speak a word of Creole in this house.”
“Aunt Jo. Say it just like that. Let the words slide out and don’t be so uptight about it. It’s just English, not too complicated.”
I follow her into the kitchen as my cousins settle on the couches and someone turns on the big TV. The living room of this house, my new home, is a sea of beige leather. The furniture crowds the small space as if every inch of it is meant for sitting. I’ve seen bigger salons in the mansions atop the hills of Petionville, even fancier furniture and wider flat-screen TVs. But none of that belonged to me and my mother; none of the owners were family. Here, I can sit on the leather couches for as long as I want and watch all the movies in the world as if I’m at the cinema.
My aunt uses a cane to get from the living room to a narrow archway leading to the kitchen. The cabinets are a nice cherry- red color; the refrigerator and stove are a shiny silver, like the moonlight. The green numbers on the stove say it’s now ten thirty at night. Matant Jo opens a cabinet, pulls out several small bottles of pills, puts them into the pocket of her short dress. The left side of her body droops and her dress slides off her shoulder.
“Are you feeling okay, Aunt?” I ask, making my voice as small as the eye of a needle.
She sighs and tries her best to stand upright. “Here they call it a stroke, but your mother would’ve said that the Gédé were pulling me into Ginen. Death owns half of me, Fabiola.”
“Don’t say that, Matant. I mean, Aunt.”
“It’s true. I’m sure your mother has taught you some things over the years, right? So, here is the fridge, the stove, some pots and pans. Make yourself at home. This is the house your uncle Phillip bought with his hard-earned money. This is the house your cousins were raised in. And now, I am so happy to share it with you.”
She doesn’t smile when she says this, and her words are as dry as cassava bread. Those words were meant for my mother, not for me. I pull out a seat from the table. But my aunt doesn’t join me. She yawns, scratches her head, rubs her left shoulder, rolls her neck, and disappears into another room right next to the kitchen. I wait for her to come back, but she doesn’t.
My cousins are laughing and talking among themselves in the living room. Again, there is loud music, but it comes from the TV. I don’t want to be a burden to them, but I have no idea what to do in this kitchen. Suddenly, I feel so alone in this house. I am surrounded by family, but none of them really knows me or understands what happened to me today. My heart begins to ache for my mother. How could my aunt just leave me here in the kitchen—is this how you treat family in America? There is no celebration for my arrival, no meal is cooked, no neighbors are invited to welcome me, not even a glass of cool water is on the table for me to drink after such a long trip.
If my mother were here, she would quickly start gathering ingredients to make me a meal, to make everyone a meal.
I open the fridge to find bottles of soda and ketchup and hot sauce and mayonnaise and bread and eggs and too many plastic containers. In the freezer are boxes of pizza and waffles and frozen meat wrapped in plastic. My stomach is so empty, it’s touching my back now. I grab a slice of orange cheese wrapped in plastic.
I jump as Pri comes into the kitchen. She’s changed into what looks like her sleep clothes—a too-big T-shirt and sweat- pants.
“Come upstairs, Fabiola,” she says, motioning for me to follow her. She’s holding my mother’s carry-on that I’d left by the front door. “Big day tomorrow—high school! In America! I hope you been practicing your mean mug in case you run up into some east side girls. And make sure you look ’em dead in the eye, ’cause you reppin’ the west side now. Don’t show weak- ness, a’ight, cuzz?”
My stomach twists at the thought of one more new experience. As I follow her, I stuff the slice of cheese into my mouth, and I can’t believe that this is the very first thing I eat in America. It tastes like a mix of glue, chalk, and salt.
Chantal greets me at the top of the stairs as Pri sets down the bag and goes into a small bedroom. Three doors line a narrow hallway, and Chantal points to one of them. “We’re sharing a room. I don’t mind.” She motions toward Pri’s closed door with a poster of a crown and scepter crossing each other. “That’s the twins’ room.”
She points to another closed door. “And that’s the bathroom. Now listen.” She turns to face me. Her glasses are at the tip of her nose and she looks up at me over the rim. “You gotta be really smart and fast about how you use this bathroom, okay?”
“Donna is in there now, and if you gotta pee and she’s put- ting on her makeup or her wigs or whatever, you have to move to plan B. She locks the door and takes hours with her fake face and her fake hair. Ma probably won’t let you use her bathroom downstairs. She used to beat our asses for fighting over the bathroom, and she banned us from using hers, especially after she got that Jacuzzi put in. Have you ever been in a Jacuzzi?”
I scan my memory for the English word Jacuzzi.
“Wait a minute. In Haiti, were you using a bathroom that’s inside the house, or outside the house?”
I bite my lip trying to figure out which story to tell her. “Both, depending on whether or not there was electricity,” I say. “It’s complicated.”
“Complicated? What’s so complicated about toilets? That’s a basic necessity. Ma told us how she grew up squatting over the . . . what do you call those? Latrines. Yeah. The latrines were always in the back of the house. You mean to tell me y’all still have latrines?”
A loud bang comes from Pri and Donna’s bedroom and makes us jump.
“Would you two please stop talking about shit. That’s nasty. I’m trying to sleep!” Pri yells from behind the closed door.
Chantal steps over and bangs back. “We’re not talking about shit; we’re talking about basic human necessities!”
Donna pokes her head out from the bathroom. “You know what’s nasty, Pri?” she shouts. “Not washing your ass before you go to sleep, smelling like a tuna sandwich. Don’t stink up my room with your tuna sandwich ass!” She shuts the door.
“Ey, ey, ey!” Matant Jo’s powerful voice booms up the stairs. “Watch your mouths! You have a guest. Go to bed!”
Everything quiets for a short moment. Then Chantal laughs. “Look at your face. You’re probably, like, ‘What did I just walk into?’”
I smile a little as she leads me to her bedroom. It’s warm and neat, like Chantal. When she turns on the light, the first thing to greet me are the shelves and shelves of books and more books. I want to stop and hug her and give her a big kiss on the cheek. With this many books I can make this place my home. I set my mother’s carry-on bag down on the soft beige carpet. An air mattress lies on the floor next to her neatly made bed, which is covered with a purple blanket and too many pillows. I wonder if my mother would’ve slept with her sister downstairs, and think about where she’s sleeping instead tonight.
Donna comes out of the bathroom and stands in Chantal’s doorway. She’s still dressed, and it looks as if she’s put on even more makeup.
“Donna, really? You’re going out now?” Chantal says.
“Just for, like, a couple of hours. . . . Driving around, that’s all.”
“That’s not true, Donna. He’s taking you all the way out to Belle Isle, isn’t he?”
“No. We’re just driving around. Maybe get something to eat at a Coney Island. That’s all.”
“Donna, please. Don’t get in Dray’s car while he’s racing,” Chantal says.
I unzip one of my suitcases and pretend not to listen, but I can’t help wonder who this Dray is. Chantal is almost begging Donna not to go out.
“Dray’s not gonna be racing,” Donna promises. “And he don’t like me in his car when he does anyway. He says I give him bad luck.”
Chantal presses her hands to her forehead as if to say that Donna is not using her head. “And you don’t see that as dis- respectful? He’s your man, but he thinks you give him bad luck? Whatever, Donna. You already made up your mind. But I’m sick of this shit.”
Donna doesn’t say anything, but I can see hurt flash across her face, like a strike of lightning. It’s gone in an instant, hidden behind her layers of makeup and hair. The bedroom door closes and I can barely hear her footsteps going down the stairs. The sound of a car’s engine filters in through the window.
“You won’t be sneaking out of the house to meet up with your shitty boyfriend, right?” Chantal asks.
I turn to her, wide-eyed. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“I didn’t think so. And don’t get caught up in Donna and her boyfriend’s shit. ’Cause he will try to holla at you. He ain’t shit.”
She is talking to me and not talking to me at the same time. I only listen and don’t give her any response. As she climbs into bed, I open the suitcase with my mother’s clothes. I pull out one of her nightgowns to wear. Hopefully, this little bit of a connection will help ease her through to this side.
“Hey,” Chantal says from her bed. “I’m sorry about your mom. I wish she was here, too. Ma was saying how she was gonna be cooking and cracking jokes. Don’t worry. We’ll figure everything out.”
I hold on to the hope in her words.
As Chantal turns off the light, I crawl onto the air mattress. It feels like clouds beneath my body. I pray for sleep to come soon, for Manman on the other side, and for Donna, who is racing out into the night with her boyfriend.
At one thirty in the morning, my eyes are burning and my stomach cries from hunger. I have not slept well since Thursday. This past week, my friends threw me a big party in our school’s yard. It had been too late for us to return home, so we all spent the night sleeping on the hard concrete classroom floors. We had so much fun joking and giggling. The next few days were spent packing and giving away extra clothes and saying no to everyone who asked me to squeeze this or that into my suitcase for a loved one in Miami or Boston or New York.
We made jokes about how to pronounce Detroit. Deux-trois. Two-three. And Michigan rhymes with Léogâne, the town, Mee-shee-GAN. Except Americans don’t say it that way. In the dark, I practice whispering “Dee-troit” and trying to get my mouth to wrap around the word just right.
Quietly, I slide off the air mattress. I need to light a candle for my mother so she can find her way back to me, but I realize I don’t have matches in my bag. I tiptoe down the dark stairs to search for some.
A small lightbulb is plugged into a socket in the kitchen. The green numbers on the stove say it’s now two in the morn- ing. I open up all the drawers until I find a lighter instead, pocketing it in my mother’s nightgown.
A man’s voice slices through the darkness. He’s singing. It’s coming from outside. I move to the living-room window and I can hear the words to his song, something about dancing in the streets. It’s an old catchy tune—like an American commercial. I tug apart the heavy curtains.
Again, the singing. Louder now, more joyful.
Across the street, a single lamppost shines on an empty weed-infested lot. Sitting on what looks like an overturned plastic bucket is an old man with a hat. He throws his head back and sings the last verse to his song:
Welcome to the D!
City of the Dead.
Welcome to the D!
Oh, don’t let those
Hungry ghosts wake
Your little sleepy head.
He finishes out his tune with a low, guttural hum just as the deep, pounding bass of a revved car engine overrides his voice. A white car zooms around the corner and comes to a screech- ing stop right in front of the house.
The singing man stands up from his bucket and braces him- self to sing the chorus as loud as he can.
Welcome to the D!
Better pack your lead.
Welcome to the D!
Oh, don’t let that
Greedy dope boy
Get all up in your head.
At that same moment, a man comes out of the driver’s side and takes long, deliberate steps toward the corner.
“Shut the fuck up, Bad Leg!” the man shouts, loud and crisp.
He reaches the singing man, grabs the collar of the old man’s dirty coat, and punches him until his body is limp. The punching man lets go and Bad Leg falls to the ground—his body like an empty potato sack.
“Mind your own fucking business, old man!” the punching man shouts. He kicks him one last time before returning to the car with his fists still clenched. I can’t see his face in the dim streetlight.
I shrink away from the window. I want to unsee and unhear everything. My heart is racing and there’s not enough air where I’m standing. Bad Leg is still on the ground, rolling from side to side. I’ve seen this before—old people in Delmas who see and say too much are often beaten up or killed by young vagabon who have no respect for elders, for life, or for themselves.
A second man comes out from the backseat of the car— younger, slim, and wearing a blue cap. “Yo, Dray, chill!” He runs to Bad Leg to help him up.
The punching man, Dray, calls out to his friend, “Yo, get the fuck away from him!”
But the blue-cap man ignores Dray and tries to help Bad Leg to his feet. He reaches down to pick up the cane, hands it to him, and makes sure the old man is stable before walking back to the car.
At the same moment, the passenger-side door opens, and I recognize those boots and that long coat. Donna stumbles out. Her long hair hangs over her face and she can barely stand up straight. She takes several clumsy steps toward the house and I quickly close the curtains. I let the dark living room be my hiding place as the front door unlocks and Donna steps in, removes her boots, and slowly makes her way up the stairs, leaving the strong scent of alcohol behind her. Her bedroom door lightly clicks shut.
I wait a few minutes before I come out of my hiding place. I replay everything until it all blurs into a dream. I want to tell Manman what I just saw and tell her that we have to go back. This corner where Matant Jo lives is no different from some of the streets in Delmas. I need to light her candles and hope that I can reach her.
Upstairs, I find a near-empty shelf in Chantal’s room, move the books aside, and start taking my mother’s things out of her carry-on bag: a small statue of La Sainte Vierge, two tea candles, the beaded asson gourd, a small brass bell, a white enamel mug, a cross, and a piece of white fabric. I bring the cloth up to my face and inhale the fragrance. I washed it by hand and soaked it in Florida water before we left. It smells of Manman’s magic—our lwas, our songs, our prayers.
I move the magic things aside to dust off the shelf with my
hand. I place the cloth down first, the cross in the center, then the other items around it. I add water from the bathroom sink into the mug. I’m now only missing a potted plant for the libation. I light a candle. It hisses in the dark. Chantal turns over, but a pillow covers her face.
I call my spirit guides to bend the time and space between where I’m standing and wherever my mother is. Maybe every- thing is happening for a reason. Maybe this was the wrong thing to do. Maybe we should go back. What would Manman say? I need to know.
For all my life, you’ve taught me so much about how there is power and magic in our lwas, in our songs, and in our prayers. Now, for the first time in my life, I get to test the truth of your words. This is the first night I’ve spent away from you and I can’t even conjure an image in my mind of where you must be.
Remember that trip to Jacmel last year when we stayed at a friend’s house and you insisted that we share a mattress made for a crib? You pulled me in close and reminded me that even with my almost-woman body, I am still your
one and only baby. Both our feet hung off the edge of the mattress and touched the cool concrete floor, and we prayed that a little mouse or a big spider would not eat our toes. I’m sleeping on an air mattress now and there’s plush beige carpeting underneath.
When I stared into the tiny flickering flame of the tea candle tonight, an image of you and where you are finally surfaced in my mind. You told me to trust every vision, every tingling of my skin, every ringing in my ear, every itch in my palms. They’re all signs. They’re all the language of the lwas.
But I’ve heard no whispers since the moment you were pulled away from me. How could the lwas not have given us a sign that this would happen, Manman? Were we too blinded and distracted by the excitement? This vision of you now is the only thing I have to hold.
I can see you. You’re on a bed on top of another bed. And a thin layer of itchy fabric is barely enough to cover your body. It’s your first night, but you’ve made some friends— two men and one woman. And they are black, black like you—black as if they’ve sat in the hot midday sun for most of their lives selling any- and everything they could find just to make enough money to buy a plane ticket out of that hot sun. They’re from Senegal, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire, because they speak a broken French just like you.
Matant Jo doesn’t let me speak French or Creole. When you come to this side, Manman, we will speak nothing but Creole. It will help me hold on to a piece of home.
Kenbe fem, Manman. Hold tight. Fabiola
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