[Image Credit: Detail of “So Pretty” by Carlos Luna, 2009]
The trains weren’t really in sync. They were a few minutes apart, despite the schedule on BART’s digital display screen. Lois tuned out the Fremont train roaring down the station’s tracks and the late Richmond-bound train opposite it. She couldn’t remember what side of the platform Tony told her to be on, so she stood in the middle near the elevators, not sure what to do next without drawing attention.
“Yo, where are you?” Tony asked.
Lois adjusted her phone’s earpiece and kicked at the shells of sunflower seeds on the ground. She hated when Tony tried to sound younger than he was, using slang words like the two of them were still a high school item 30 years ago. He started doing that as soon as they boarded the plane in St. Louis. She figured it was his way of introducing his other side, a hipper version of himself that he’d grown into after moving to Oakland.
“I’m here at the train station,” Lois told him.
“The one you told me to be at.”
“Yes, if that’s the one you told me to meet you at. I’m on the platform.”
“Is there a big ass coliseum within view? If so, then you’re at the Coliseum station.”
Lois gripped her purse, feeling foolish as she stared at the arena across from the station surrounded by sports team emblems and stadium lights.
“It wouldn’t be like this if we’d just rented a car.”
“No,” Tony said, “it wouldn’t be like this if we weren’t staying in some ritzy 4-star hotel that stopped us from renting a car. I told you my Uncle and Aunt would’ve been happy to host us.”
Lois sighed. It was happening again. Her, helpless and jealous of a city, like it was some secret girlfriend of Tony’s she discovered. Tony, smearing her insecurities in her face. Them, both arguing over the pettiest things.
Maybe it was a mistake visiting the Bay Area. Besides a random BFF retreat to the Bahamas with Jillian a few years back, Lois had never travelled outside of Missouri. She tried reminding herself how this was an enviable vacation, but after getting the long awaited tour of San Francisco’s hotspots, she felt like loosened yarn under Oakland’s claw of scathing artists and revolution junkies. She and Tony hadn’t been in California for two whole days and already, Lois was tired of the cannabis clubs, dog fetishizing, anti-Walmart rants, and the over-exaggerations about rain.
In St. Louis, Lois had everything: Tony, her possessions, her history of steady income from a once high-profile career. Here, she learned fast that hair relaxers and designer clothes weren’t a priority. No one cared if you were a condo-owning PhD graduate or a room renter who de-littered the streets for a living, as long as you were a fan of independent film, never color-coordinated your clothes, and had tried yoga, at least once.
“It’s not that complicated,” Lois told Tony. “I’m uncomfortable, okay? Don’t expect me to mingle so fast.”
There was a patch of dead air on the other end. Lois could tell he’d stopped listening.
“I’m hanging up now,” she said. “Come find me later at the ritzy 4-star hotel.”
“Just turn around, woman.”
Lois did, and she saw Tony walking toward her at the other end of the platform. She tried to contain the excitement gushing through her. Tony’s Raiders cap hung low over his boyish face and, for a moment, Lois saw Quentin all over him. She looked away before the memory of their son could harden her.
“How long have you been over there watching me look like an idiot?”
Tony playfully nipped at the tip of her nose with his front teeth the way he always did when he wanted to stop an argument between them. To Lois, it was a raunchy habit, like squeezing a nipple or yanking on a belt buckle in public. She wondered, grudgingly, what kind of lover he’d learned that from during the years they were apart.
“You call anyone yet?” Tony asked.
By ‘anyone’, he meant Lois’s mother. Tony didn’t seem capable of saying Justine’s name anymore.
“Keep that up,” Lois said, “and I’m going to make you call her out three times in a mirror with the lights off.”
“You didn’t even tell her, did you?”
“I’m not a kid. She doesn’t need to know everything.”
The Richmond train came and slowed to a stop in front of them. They boarded the first car and stood against the bike rail near the doors. Tony removed his hat and scratched his bald head. Lois stared at him, pleased with his decision to cut the thinning dreadlocks that marked him as the ranting bohemian everyone in St. Louis wrongly assumed he was, including her mother.
“They say anything about this?”
Lois ran the tips of her fingers over his head. Finally, she could enjoy a piece of him left untouched by the women she imagined he’d dated, possibly loved.
“It’s the first time I’ve been called snazzy, if that’s what you mean,” Tony said.
“Is that a compliment?”
“Clearly, you do, the way you said it.”
“My boy, Fisher’s, a storage property manager, not a style advisor. Besides him helping me clean out my unit, I didn’t expect much else.”
“Is this the same guy who claimed it was cheaper to ship your belongings home instead of drive back in a U-Haul?”
“Guess you and him break even when it comes to saving money.”
Before she could respond, Tony covered Lois’s mouth with one of his colossal hands. His signature cologne—crisp and woodsy—warmed her. She imagined her insides glowing like one of those lava lamps Tony kept in his room back when he used to live with Ms. Myrtle. Lois remembered the nights they cuddled together on the floor instead of Tony’s twin bed so his grandmother wouldn’t hear the creaks in his mattress when they fooled around. Together, they watched globs of color inside the lamps embrace, dismantle, and re-shape themselves as the two of them lay in the dark, listening to The Quiet Storm on Magic 108 FM.
As the train neared its next stop, Lois dipped under Tony’s arms and pressed herself against his rear. She buried the side of her face into the safety of his back muscles for the duration of the ride.
“Mama, I can’t talk right now.”
“Where are you? I’ve been trying to call you.”
Justine’s voice sounded hoarse and nasally like she’d been crying.
“Did you hear me? I said, I can’t talk right now.”
“Why not? You can’t be at work. I thought you said no more weekends. It’s Saturday.”
Lois left Tony in the mini mart and went outside to block any chance of crosstalk.
“What is it, Mama?”
“You’re not with Tony, are you?”
“Mama, what’s wrong?”
Justine blew her nose into the phone.
“Your brother hung up on me, that’s what’s wrong. I swear, him and your sister must be plotting against me. Next thing you know, she’ll have him accusing me of being a bad mother, too.”
Lois clenched her teeth. If she’d been there with Justine, she could’ve just nodded her head the way she’d learned to do when she wanted to politely shut her mother up. Justine, always confusing agreement with acknowledgement, would then drop the subject to rant about more important things, like the art of mashing Ms. Myrtle’s pills into her oatmeal when the woman wasn’t looking. Or, how Raynah’s silent treatment after their spat at the nail shop was tempting Justine to disown her firstborn.
Raynah claiming their mother, the Blackest June Cleaver on Earth, was an underground activist back in the early ‘70’s was beyond ludicrous. Her nerve to take things further and drag Justine into the Veiled Prophet scandal, based on a tattered newspaper photo in Sir’s basement, bordered on slander. But, Raynah was just being Raynah: a hotheaded has-been who resorted to making up stories when she couldn’t accept her own failed reality. No one believed her, least of all, Lois.
Still, her sister’s fight with Justine conjured up things Lois hadn’t thought about in a long time. Things like eating Cracker Jacks and braiding her dolls’ hair as she watched the Veiled Prophet parade with her siblings on their family television. Or, competing with Raynah and Theo to see who could point out the most Black faces in the sea of bystanders that viewed the hooded figures marching through the streets of downtown St. Louis in dignified silence. Or, Justine skittering in and out of the living room, avoiding the screen as she busied herself with housework and grumbled at them for minor offenses she’d normally let pass. Or, the tube getting shut off once Sir was home, no explanation or backtalk allowed.
“No one’s accusing you of being a bad mother.”
“Speak for yourself,” Justine said. “Don’t forget the monster your sister’s been to me. And, Theo, well….I haven’t always seen eye to eye with your father, but at least we agreed on one thing.”
“And, what’s that?”
“Do I really need to say it? Not my fault he couldn’t get re-elected. No one’s going to vote for him or one of those fruits he hangs with.”
Lois hadn’t dwelled on the outcome of her brother’s re-election. She didn’t see much of him as it was—no one in the family did. And, last month’s crushing poll results was enough to assure her that Theo would lay low throughout the rest of the season, maybe even well into the summer.
Who Theo was laying low with, was the real question on everyone’s mind. Lois tried not to indulge the thought for too long. What her brother did in his personal life, and with who, wasn’t her business. It wasn’t anyone’s place to judge, something Lois knew their mother was privy to doing, especially when she didn’t get her way.
“What the hell’s so funny?,” Justine asked.
Lois chewed on her bottom lip, trying to mute her giggles. The idea of being this far out of her mother’s reach for the first time in years ignited in her a giddiness that was hard to hold down.
“Are you on drugs?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Don’t make me ask you again.”
“Mama, stop it. You’re being silly.”
“Tony’s damaged goods, Lois. Leave him alone before it’s too late. I know you miss Quentin, but–“
“I thought you called about Theo.”
The pressure in Lois’s chest rose and constricted her throat. Through the convenience store’s window, she saw Tony tuck his wallet into his pocket and take a bagged bottle of Sangria from the checkout clerk. Sometimes he moved with so much caution, like he was preparing himself for the next unforeseen blow.
“Well, if we’re talking about Theo, we might as well talk about Tony.”
“It’s not the same, Mama.”
“I know it’s not,” Justine said. “He left for reasons you can’t fix or change. That’s between him and God to work out. You stay out of it.”
Lois wandered down the sidewalk and backed against the side of a crowded taco truck.
“Just let Theo breathe for a while, will you?”
“Girl, please,” Justine said. “That boy’s had more time to breathe than anyone I know. Always away for something. Always needing his space. No wonder Beth left him. Hell, the only difference between him and Tony’s the continual fool Tony makes out of you.”
Across the street, a fuchsia cardigan flung off a clothesline, its powerlessness pronounced against the forceful breeze. Lois looked the other way, a sickly swirl entering her stomach. She watched Tony zig-zag through a pocket of people to reach her.
“I’m in Oakland,” she heard herself say.
“California?” Justine asked.
“Yes, with Tony. Sorry about Theo, but there’s nothing I can do. I’ll call you when I get back.”
Tony’s relatives’ house was festively orange with Zapp & Roger funk music pouring out of it.
“Two hours tops, and you can’t leave me alone,” Lois said, trailing him onto the narrow porch.
In front of one of the windows, she smoothed down her hair which surprisingly hadn’t lost its bump under the wind’s authority. Her mouth was dry and her teeth, pasty, from sitting cramped and close-mouthed next to Tony on the bus ride from Jack London Square to the Lower Bottoms.
Surprisingly, Justine hadn’t called back. Lois knew she should’ve been relieved, but her mother’s silent disapproval made her fretful. And, while she didn’t have her finger on the touchscreen pad of her cell phone yet, she was already prioritizing a call—maybe, a quick text—during a bathroom break she’d take whenever she ran out of things to say at this cookout she didn’t care to be at.
A lanky man flung open the screen door and bounced onto the porch. He looked to be in his late teens and was dressed in a tank top and flip flops.
“Say it ain’t so, cousin!”
“Not so!,” Tony exclaimed, pulling the man into a bear hug.
They geeked out like school boys before Tony raised his bagged bottle of Sangria in Lois’s direction.
“Yo, is this her?,” the man asked.
Lois stiffened. Her body always clamped shut when it was time for introductions with Tony. To say he was her child’s father was inappropriate. Technically, it was also inaccurate. She hoped Tony knew he couldn’t get away with calling her his lady friend anymore which, to Lois, was like being reduced to mistress status. Someday, being known to others as his fiancée or wife would be nice, but right now, it was too soon and too dangerous.
“Jermaine, this is Lois,” Tony said. “Lois, Jermaine.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Jermaine kissed her hand and held it against his chest. Lois wondered what he knew about her. Did he need to be so dramatic? Maybe he was confusing her with someone else in Tony’s vault.
They went inside where the air was thick with beer, barbecue sauce, and marijuana smoke. Adults, kids and in-betweens filled the living room and blended with the busyness of Afrocentric paintings on the walls, shouting over the big screen TV to hear themselves.
Jermaine disappeared and re-emerged with a busty, chocolate woman wearing metallic purple lipstick and a checkered head wrap. She looked like an older, warmer version of Raynah. Her silver bracelets clashed loudly on her meaty arms as she embraced Tony.
“You must be Lois,” the woman said, squeezing her next. “Call me Auntie Kit like everyone else around here.”
Something about the woman was hopelessly genuine. Lois could feel herself trying, but failing, to pull away from her magnetic energy. She looked at Tony, who looked at the floor, and back at Auntie Kit.
“And, this is Uncle Earl.”
“Uncle Earl, I am,” said the squat, fair-skinned man approaching them. “You two follow me.”
He led Tony and Lois into the backyard where more people sat clumped together on the patch of lawn beyond the patio. Con Funk Shun’s Love’s Train floated from the stereo. Under a palm tree, a buffet-style table showcased ribs, hot dogs, burgers, pork and beans, potato salad, plastic ware, napkins, condiments and a cooler full of drinks.
Lois made Tony’s plate and hers while he made his rounds at tables, greeting family and old friends. Keeping busy with the food was better than having to be routinely introduced.
“How’s Myrtle?” Auntie Kit asked once they settled at the table.
Tony poked at the beans on his plate.
“I’ve been trying to get your uncle to visit his big sister.”
“With what money and what time?” Uncle Earl asked, irritated.
“He just doesn’t think he can see her like that. It’s been awhile since we….well, you know, since Pete.”
“She doesn’t bite,” Tony said, “she’s pretty stable most of the time, as long as someone’s around to make her take her meds. Lois’s mom helps her.”
“That so?” Uncle Earl asked.
“Yes, my mother and his grandmother have lived across from each other since Tony and I were little,” explained Lois.
“So, you’re childhood sweethearts,” Auntie Kit said, grinning at both of them.
“Something like that.”
“How do you like California?”
“It’s not so bad.”
“Not so bad?”
The woman leaned forward, clearly amused, her nose ring twinkling in the sunlight.
Lois stuffed her mouth with potato salad. She’d already given up on the ribs which were just sweet sauce over undercooked meat, a disgrace to her Midwestern barbecue standards.
“I can’t say I’ve fallen in love,” she told Auntie Kit, “but I’m charmed.”
“Just wait. It grows on you in ways you’d least expect.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“You have such a cute drawl,” said a twenty-something girl sitting opposite Tony. She was squash-colored with problem skin and blended in with the party’s backdrop in dark clothes and horn-rimmed glasses. She seemed like one of those people who was accustomed to going unnoticed and, in retaliation, used their crudeness to disarm others.
“Where are you from again?” she asked Lois.
“Misery,” someone said within ear’s reach. A flurry of laughter died under the music.
“She’s from St. Louis, like me,” Tony said, a pinch of defense in his voice. “Ignore Sasha and the trolls, Lois. They’re anti-America except for Cali.”
“Pro-NorCal. LA can kiss my ass, too.”
“You ever been in a tornado, Ms. Lois?” Jermaine asked, squeezing in next to Sasha.
“No I haven’t, fortunately.”
“I bet they’re worse than earthquakes,” Sasha said.
“Except for that one we had in ’87,” said Jermaine.
“ ’89, fool.”
“Oh, that was pure hell,” Auntie Kit chimed in. “Sirens everywhere. Power shut off for hours. Earl was still driving trucks in Sac and Jermaine wasn’t even thought of yet. Thank goodness I was on maternity leave, nursing Sasha at home, or else I would’ve been stuck on the 27th floor of some office building in San Francisco.”
“Yeah, I heard about it,” Lois said. “My older sister was living here at the time.”
“You all remember Raynah,” Tony injected, “the one who went to UC Berkeley.”
“Oh, right,” exclaimed Auntie Kit. “Smart girl!”
“Your sister went to UC Berkeley in the 80’s?” Sasha asked, her face flushed with excitement. “That’s pretty impressive.”
“She flunked out,” Lois said, dismissively, and smiled, hoping to veil her envy.
She still couldn’t bear to imagine Raynah and Tony together in this city while she was alone and knocked up with his baby in St. Louis. The idea of them screwing behind her back was excruciating, but likely nonsense, since their combined stubbornness probably doused any spark of passion that grew between them.
“She’s not the first or the last,” said Auntie Kit, lighting a joint.
Sasha’s eyelids fluttered with feigned innocence. Lois braced herself for more fuckery.
“And, what college did you attend?”
“I didn’t. I had a kid and then, I went to real estate school.”
“Yeah, she built a pretty large clientele back home,” Tony added. “Now, she’s into consulting on her own time.”
“Nice,” Sasha said, “considering no one really buys property anymore.”
Lois squeezed and dented her empty ginger ale can.
“Maybe not in California with the ridiculous cost of living.”
“The best views and good weather year-round don’t come cheap.”
“Puny yards, no basements, clueless young professionals….”
“…which still beats cheap coffee, bad wine, and cow-tipping.”
“Cow tipping? Really, cuz?” Tony asked. “We tackle bison in the M-O. Check your facts.”
He cackled with Uncle Earl and Jermaine as they clinked their beer bottles together.
“There’s more to the South than farms and cattle, Sasha,” Auntie Kit told her daughter. “Actually, Missouri is the Midwest,” Lois corrected.
“Same thing, if you ask me. Damn shame what happened there in Ferguson last year. Is that close to where you stay? Did you know Mike Brown?”
“Come on, Auntie,” Tony said, warily.
“Did you know Oscar Grant?”
“Well, we knew a friend of his family’s. They were such nice folks, I hear.”
“Are such nice folks,” Uncle Earl said. “He’s the one dead, not them. Bastard pigs.”
“Shut up, Earl. Anyway, honey, we’re glad you’re here.”
Lois excused herself from the backyard gathering and found an empty bathroom upstairs. She locked the door and sat on the toilet’s lid, a familiar solace overtaking her as she scrolled through her list of phone contacts.
The warm, dying device’s battery signal turned yellow. Lois landed on Quentin’s name, her eyes devouring every letter. Thanks to Tony, she’d stopped the calling and hanging up, but the entry would never be deleted.
“I know you’re in there, Lo.”
Tony’s robust, low voice was now a whine as he knocked on the other side of the locked door.
“So, you’re just gonna hide out up here?” he asked.
Downstairs, speakers blasted the bassline intro of George Clinton’s Atomic Dog. Stomps and shouts promptly echoed throughout the house. Lois remembered the house parties her parents hosted the few times things between them were okay. How she and Theo once found the nerve to ask Sir if they could dress up in dog and cat costumes like the actors in Clinton’s colorful music video.
Who would be the dog, her father had questioned, because the last thing he needed was two damn cats running around his neighborhood. What he said still stung, as did the image of Theo sucking the insides of his jaws the way he always did when he tried not to cry. Lois sympathetically did her little brother’s chores, along with hers, for nearly a week until Theo caught her taking out the trash one night. In an impulsive rage, he elbowed her in the face and broke her nose.
Lois, in all her bleeding and immediate swelling, was glad at the timing of the whole thing; no one was home, except the two of them. She knew Sir would deal with Theo if he ever found out. Maybe not as bad as if her brother messed with Raynah, his do-no-wrong favorite child, but their father still would’ve dished out a brutal punishment.
With Theo’s help, Lois snuck towel-wrapped ice into the room she shared with Raynah. She laid in bed for days, a bedspread covering her smashed face, and pretended to be crippled by stomach cramps. Of all people, Lois couldn’t believe her mother bought a 10-year-old’s claim on having her first period. Raynah, she knew, didn’t care enough to out her lie. Maybe none of them did, if it meant keeping what little peace could be kept at the time.
“I’m on the phone,” Lois lied.
She ran a finger along her nose’s healed bridge. It felt straight, but she always noticed the difference and was mildly offended when no one else did. Being the one branded the beautiful sibling—both in appearance and behavior—had its drawbacks. People pitied her for living up to her blandness as the middle child. At some point, even her imperfections became unsee-able.
“Who you talking to?” Tony probed.
The twinge of jealousy in his voice was deeply gratifying.
Up until then, Lois was careful not to mention her brother, not out of concern for what Tony would do, but in fear of what he wouldn’t do anymore since he’d returned to St. Louis last year, which was love her. She tried not to blame Theo for Tony’s leaving. She reminded herself that Theo being in love with Tony’s brother wasn’t what attacked Pete or left him dead on those train tracks. The incident was what it was: an unsolved murder that cracked Tony enough to sever ties with his best friend and be absent from his son’s life.
“Okay,” Tony said, “I’ll be downstairs.”
“He says hi,” Lois offered, feeling the words rush out of her.
There was a pocket of silence followed by what sounded like an exaggerated swig from a beer bottle.
“Tell him I said what’s up.”
Lois quickly texted Theo’s number to Tony before the yellow light in her battery signal could turn red. Then, she texted Tony’s number to Theo and typed ‘tony says call him’.
“He says tell him yourself.”
Suddenly fatigued, Lois dropped the phone inside her purse and wiped the skin underneath her eyes. She didn’t know why. She wasn’t crying, but somehow, the tears felt there. She stood and glared at her dry-faced reflection in the mirror above the bathroom cabinet.
Grief always had a funny way of showing up. One day, you were dealing with the pain of seeing your own dead kid in night terrors that whispered assumptions on how he took his last breath, who he was with, what actually happened, and how you’d never really know the truth. And, just when you felt trapped under the avalanche of your own sorrow, which sometimes—who was she kidding, most times—required hiding in bed each morning and waiting for the least painful way to rise and take a cold, long shower before you learned that game of leaping from one distraction to another, your tear glands played tricks and messed with the only certainty left to you: a good cry.
“Is this what you and my sister wasted yourselves doing here every day?” Lois asked, opening the door. She pointed to the beer bottle Tony held close to his chest. His eyes looked clouded and bloodshot from smoking.
“Who, Raynah?,” he asked, smirking and tugging at his beard. “Hell no. Tough as she is, she’s still a square.”
Lois grabbed the nearly empty bottle, swirled it around to dissolve the backwash and took a swig. She followed Tony to the end of the hallway. Neither of them said anything, but she knew he was showing her his old bedroom.
The room was small, much tinier than the space Lois shared with Raynah when they were young, but larger than Tony and Pete’s room at Ms. Myrtle’s house. It smelled ancient, like mothballs, used books, and years of leftover food being eaten in silence and sadness, away from concerned, but easygoing, relatives at the dinner table.
Lois heard Tony’s anxious breathing behind her. Or, maybe it was her own breathing. She was no longer sure where her tension ended and his began when they were alone together.
Atomic Dog was replaced by another classic downstairs. Lois couldn’t stop her fingers from tapping against the beer bottle. She needed to dance.
Auntie Kit had a smile as big and infectious as Chaka Khan’s while she sang I’m Every Woman. She merrily waved a chicken bone in her hand like an ethnic deity. Her jewelry slapped against the heads of excited children surrounding her in the backyard. Between verses, she’d pause to rub her bum against the back of her husband’s Dashiki, or turn around to kiss him gingerly on the top of his head.
Before Lois could retreat into the kitchen, Auntie Kit dragged her onto the patch of grass that was the dance floor. Lois’s knees buckled beneath her jean dress. Her hands hung passionlessly at her sides. She felt like one of those acne-scarred kids attempting to blend into the walls at one of her old high school dances, only there was no wall to cling to. No punch bowl to hover around.
“C’mon, girl!,” yelled Auntie Kit over the music. “You’re from the Show-Me state. Show Oakland how you get down! Shake those hips!”
Auntie Kit held Lois’s palms up to the fitful sky. The woman’s hands were hot and damp. Instantly, she became one of the sweaty women standing on either side of Lois’s then 8-year-old self in her childhood church. The women spoke in strange tongues and closed themselves around a newcomer who’d caught the Holy Ghost during a Sunday night revival service.
Lois remembered the way the newcomer’s curls whipped across her face. The woman’s fair legs and high heeled feet that resembled matches striking against the sanctuary’s worn carpet. Her citrusy perfume that, if edible, could’ve tasted like orange Tic Tacs.
Overjoyed, Lois found herself suspended in the air, looking over the circle of women sparkling in the spirit. She heard the congregation’s chants, wild claps, and raw hollers align with the organ’s throaty moan and the drum’s shrill gabble. The little girl body of hers trembled uncontrollably, preparing itself to catch the invisible flames that jerked the body of the female in the circle’s middle.
A river of emotions pulled Lois back down into the Oakland yard party as Chaka’s song faded, replaced by Parliament’s Flashlight. The sound system’s ruthless snare tore into Lois and vibrated through her, one limb at a time. The more she tried to contain herself, the less control she had. Everything tingled, and then, she felt herself rippling. Her body shuddered, like it was weeping to the beat. Struck like a cymbal, with nowhere to go but out. She was seized, dispersed, returned, repeated.
In the distance, through the cluster of people on the dance floor, Lois caught a glimpse of Tony standing over a group of men playing dominoes. He turned, as if he sensed Lois’s attention on him, and looked back at her, his face lighting up.
Amazed, Tony’s relatives, even Sasha, hooted over their beers and blunts. She felt their smiles lift her while she moved.
The quilted sky, with its peek-a-boo sun, opened out to her and, in that moment, she was no one’s angel, or devil, or daughter, or sister, or friend, or lover, or aching once-mother. She wasn’t a neighbor, or boss, or worker, or guest, or hostess, or congregant, or citizen, or race, or sex. She was no one, but she was hers. She was all hers.
The next morning, Lois woke up feeling sore and severely lightheaded. Tony was already gone, probably somewhere complaining about Missouri to people as his way of apologizing for not staying in California. He’d already sent her a text message, promising to return to the hotel by noon before checkout.
Lois took an aspirin, checked her emails, and ordered a big breakfast from room service. She wasn’t usually a morning eater, past eggs or a muffin, and tried to recall how much alcohol she had at yesterday’s cookout.
She wasn’t surprised at how much of a lightweight she’d become; the last time she downed enough to have a hangover was during the repass after Sir’s funeral. Drinking had been the only way to avoid clashing with every person who cloaked their nosiness with personal condolences instead of directly asking Lois if she was acquiring her father’s house for resale. Or, worse, having a public fallout with Justine who micro-managed everything, from the food layout to the way Lois showed guests to the door at the end of the night.
“You’re drinking beer now?” Jillian asked Lois over the phone. “I thought Californians were the wine snobs.”
“So Lady-Like of me, right?” Lois joked, turning on the television. Already, there was coverage of a brewing demonstration on the local channels. She heard Jillian suck her teeth.
“God, is protesting all they do there? Does anyone have a real job? I’m not even in the room, but from the sound of things on the tube, folks just wake up angry and take to the streets.”
Lois laughed, mostly at the absurdity of her best friend’s judgment. If their conversation had happened earlier, she would’ve entertained Jillian with her own thoughts on offbeat people in the Bay. For the most part, the majority of people here were still weird, but maybe not as weird as everyone assumed.
What bothered Lois was not being able to make her best friend understand how coming to California wasn’t the romantic getaway she hoped for, but a hard awakening into who she really was, or wasn’t. How she returned to the hotel room last night, wishing she was drunker, to numb a persistent darkness that couldn’t be outdone with good manners or a quick lay. How she pretended to watch television from the sofa until Tony, expectantly naked between the bed sheets, dozed off so she wouldn’t have to explain why she needed to be alone with her realization. Or, how, somewhere in all of that, she was slowly beginning to wrap her mind around the complications in her parents’ rocky marriage and how they’d grown worlds apart from each other until their lives could no longer be contained in the same house.
But, the past was the past. Some things didn’t matter anymore, not in the same way they’d mattered before. This wasn’t 1985; she and Tony weren’t silly, sex-starved kids with endless possibilities at their feet. A lot of things had happened, including Pete and Quentin.
Where that left Lois was anyone’s guess. She felt like such an in-between. In the middle, where she’d been all her life. She was shapeless, capable of anything and nothing. An over-pixelated image that no one could make out. So much of yesterday had left Lois confused enough to want to share how she was feeling with someone and yet, speaking too soon about her experience seemed to cheapen it.
“I need to finish packing,” she told Jillian. “Call you when I get home, okay?”
The solitude was stifling. Lois turned up the volume on the television and changed the channel to a sitcom she couldn’t name offhand. She giggled absently with the syndicated audience, trying to shirk the cloud of desperation that followed her on the plane ride home with Tony, into St. Louis where they unpacked in a drowsy, wordless daze.
By the time Lois arrived at Raynah’s place, she was overwhelmed by the chatter in her mind. She did something she never did and parked in the back alley, closer to the train tracks, to avoid being seen by Justine next door. Heart racing and ears still popping from the flight’s descent, she trotted through the side yard, grasping for every reason not to feel like a traitor.
Raynah looked like she always looked. Exacting and unsurprised, like she was waiting on the next person or thing to challenge her. She stood in the doorway, arms folded over her chest, and shrugged at Lois.
“What kind of a greeting is that?” Lois asked. “They teach you that in California, too?”
“I’m working. What do you want?”
Lois heard the faint sound clicking on a keyboard in the background and glanced over her sister’s shoulder, curbing the resentment that rose in her. The evening sunset’s glow sprinkled over glass encasements of memorabilia and scribblings in what used to be Sir’s living room. How Raynah had pulled off turning their father’s home into a free-for-all community project in the heart of a declining neighborhood baffled Lois, but it was clear the city was trusting her with some of its cash.
Raynah rolled her eyes and stepped aside, as if she’d read Lois’s mind. Lois was glad to fill the strained silence between them with the click-clack of her high heels on the hardwood floor as she wandered in rooms of the newly designed space.
She trailed Raynah into the kitchen that was still a kitchen. A college-age albino girl in dungarees rose from her laptop at the table and introduced herself as Claire, the new intern. She offered Lois coffee which she politely declined. Lois sized up the girl, deciding she was good company for her sister. She said very little, but her gentle resolve seemed to pacify the tightness in the air. Lois almost wished the girl would’ve stayed instead of excusing herself.
“Sir would draw blood if he saw how you gutted this place.”
“I’m sure he’s having his say somewhere,” said Raynah.
She leaned against a cabinet, her eyes cutting into Lois.
“Mama put you up to reporting on my latest failure? Next time, tell her if she’s that concerned with how I’m bringing down the property value, she should bring her nosy ass over here and see for herself.”
“You tell her,” Lois said, easing into a chair at the table. “I just got back from Oakland.”
Disbelief washed over Raynah’s face and before she could respond, Lois tossed her sister a head wrap that Auntie Kit gave her. She’d tried it on and hated the way she looked in it. She didn’t have the woman’s blunt Black skin or Raynah’s strong bone structure. The brass-colored complexion and round doll-like face that usually earned Lois partial recognition failed to offset the wrap’s kaleidoscopic patterns.
Raynah held the cloth to her nose and slowly inhaled.
“Don’t tell me you and Tony eloped unless you’re ready to bury Mama, too.”
“I just broke up with him.”
Lois traced her mouth with her finger, not believing she’d found the words to describe what happened.
“I mean, we’re on standby right now,” she said, “until there’s more reasons than not, why we should be together.”
Raynah turned the head wrap over in her hands and looked down at the floor.
“Something happen out there to make you mad?”
“I don’t know what the fuck I am anymore,” Lois blurted.
They both let out a hard, soulful laugh that sounded more like a shout.
Raynah smiled at her, a sad recognition in her eyes. She became the sister who barged in on Lois’s 13-year-old self bawling softly in the bathtub over a pair of blood-stained drawers on the tile floor. The one who hid the soiled underwear at the bottom of their joint laundry basket, tossed Lois one of her maxi pads, and closed the door without a word.
Now, Raynah quietly poured wine for Lois. The clock’s ticking on the wall above the fridge grew louder. Lois swirled her glass of wine, feeling on the edge of something. She knew the danger of giving her body time to catch up to her doubts that, if toyed with long enough, still had the power to drag her back inside the safety of her Benz and into the distraction of Tony’s arms again.
“Show me those clippings of Mama you found.”
Raynah plucked a new pack of cigarettes from the pouch in her sweatshirt. She tapped the pack’s bottom against the table’s marble surface and removed the plastic wrapper. She placed a single stick behind her ear and then, another stick behind her other ear.
“You coming or not?,” Raynah asked, opening the basement door.
At the end of the street, Lois could hear the familiar chirp of an emerging train, its speed rattling the tea cups that dangled from hooks on the kitchen island. She gulped down her wine and took whatever was left in the bottle downstairs with her.
Lyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis native who lives and works in Oakland. She’s a VONA/Voices Alumna and was a 2016 recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson Award. Her work appears, or is forthcoming, in Eleven Eleven, The Offing, Joyland, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Golden State 2017: Best New Fiction & Nonfiction from California, and elsewhere.