Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Frayed" By Danielle James - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist



Danielle James

It’s Tuesday. The Tuesday you decide to open the package your mom sent you three weeks ago. She called you and said she found old letters from your father. It was strange to read them after all these years, she said. But she did read them. And then, she passed them on to you.

You sit back on the couch and tear the edge off the brown envelope. A crumpled piece of paper falls on your lap. Happy birthday Danielle. Big letters surround a fat number two in the middle of the page. A smiling brown bear holds a red balloon. The colors are fading, but you can still see how neatly it was penciled in. At the bottom of the drawing is a signature, Love, Daddy. This makes you laugh out loud. You can’t remember when you last called your father Daddy, but you do remember this drawing.

You looked at it every day for years. Until you detached it from your bedroom wall when you realized what your father loved most were little glass tubes with little white rocks. When you stopped calling him Daddy and only called him Frank.

You think back to when you were nine and the only time you saw him was when you and your mother sat on a bus for a long time. The bus was full of women with creases in their foreheads. You drew in a coloring book on the ride and waved to the other children. When the bus stopped, all passengers were herded into a building where security guards who didn’t smile and wore thick-soled shoes decided how long you could see your father. You sat at a round table and displayed your drawings while he and your mother held hands. There was a vending machine that made your father happy. You put coins in it and came back with a nutty chocolate bar, and his tired smile became wide. The three of you posed for Polaroids in front of a big paper sheet with a picture of a sunset and palm trees. In these photos, you and your mother are in jeans and sweaters and he always wears the same no-color jumpsuit. His dreadlocks fell in your face when he hugged you goodbye. He told you he loved you but never came home.

Exhausted and broke, your mother left Brooklyn and resettled in Belgium, where you learned to speak Flemish and ate sugary crepes for breakfast. Every summer, you visited your family. After a while, your mother started coming less and you often flew the eight hours to America alone. At seven years old, you loved the Singapore Airlines stewardesses, with their glossy dresses and slick buns. They gave you a special seat on the plane and regularly stopped to chat with you. After the landing, they held your hand and accompanied you to the arrivals hall, where you scanned the crowd of expectant faces until you saw the familiar smiles of your grandparents, uncles, and aunt. It wasn’t until after the barrage of hugs and kisses that you’d look around and ask, Where’s daddy? Your uncle sucked his teeth while your grandmother stopped and squeezed you tight, Oh honey.
From jail, your father sent cards with drawings of Marvin the Martian and letters, so many letters. In the letters, he counted down the days until he came home. He sent newspaper clippings, said how much he thought about you, and begged you to write back more often. He compared you to a cinnamon raisin bagel, a butterfly, and a hurricane. Just like you, it made a lot of noise, peed on people, and got them wet, just like you did as a baby, he wrote. His letters made you smile, but the jokes and drawings didn’t make up for him being away. You did not tell him this. Instead, you said Me too when he said he missed you over collect phone calls. Until you were twelve and built up the courage to write him a long letter. Tears slipped from your eyes as years of loneliness and broken promises filled the pages. You made sure to wipe them before they fell.

He called and said he got the letter, he was writing a response.

The letter never came.

And just like you after bugging everyone all day, Hurricane Danielle went to sleep. The only difference is that nobody loves Hurricanes, but your mother and I love our little Danielle.

For three years, you didn’t see him at all. The letters stopped coming, and you stopped expecting. You decided to never cry over him again and kept that promise. Until you flew to visit your family in New York and spotted your father’s face in the arrivals hall. As soon as you saw him, your eyes swelled and drizzled. He wrapped his arms around you and you could smell his shampoo.

After a decade of being in and out of jail and rehab, your father claimed to be a reformed man. He had his own apartment and worked a steady job in construction. One day, the two of you drove to Roosevelt Island. I have something to tell you, he said. He left you behind on a bench and came back with a curly haired toddler. You knew right away that this was your brother, and you loved him from the moment you saw him. You spent the day together and met his mom and half-brother, your new stepbrother. When you left, your brother cried and stretched his little arms towards you.

In the car, your father shared the next destination. You were headed to the hospital to meet the newest member of the family. Born just a few days prior, your baby brother was the most beautiful baby you’d ever seen. He was tiny with a head full of dark hair, like you when you were born. This brother had a different mother, and she greeted you with a slurred voice. You learned she was using during her pregnancy, and your brother had to detox. He couldn’t have his mother’s milk, so you fed him from a bottle. You held him tight for a long, long time.

That night, your father told you he loved your mother. His plan was to come home and become a family, but now he had to tell her he couldn’t. He never meant to hurt her, or get those women pregnant, but things happen in rehab. You waved him away, for years, you begged your mother for a brother, and now you had three! You went back to Belgium and plastered your room with photos of your new siblings. It wasn’t until years later that you wondered how your mother felt when she heard the news.

The next time you visited your father, he had a new apartment on Sterling Street in Brooklyn. Your brothers, stepmom, and a white pit bull lived there, and you had your own bedroom. Your father tried to act fatherly. He made you breakfast, bought you new sneakers, and gave you a curfew. At 15 years old, you appreciated the food and footwear, but were confused by the curfew. Did this man really think he had any authority over you? You responded to his rules by breaking them. You stayed out until the early morning, smoked blunts on the front steps of his building, and invited your friends into the apartment. His voice trembled as he yelled out punishments, all of which you ignored. One night, after coming home three hours past curfew, you closed the door, only to find him standing in the hallway. We got a problem, he said. You laughed and tried to walk past him but he grabbed you by the back of your neck and slammed you into the wall. The back of your head hurt, and you knew he was the stronger one, but you lunged at him anyway. The two of you punched and pulled at each other, until you were able to break free, run upstairs, and jump out of your bedroom window, into the arms of your friends from the block. They had seen the fight through the glass door and yelled threats of breaking open the front door to your father. Together, you and your friends ran away into the night. The collar of your top was ripped. Your neck, arms, and legs were tainted blue. 

* * *

You’re 23 and live in your own apartment in Flatbush. Your father is no longer on drugs. He’s no longer serving time for armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, drug use (or abuse). He’s no longer on probation but can no longer vote. He hates all forms of law enforcement. If someone messes with your brothers, he reaches for his bat and finds them. He brings them to school, to their games, to the movies, and tucks them into bed. Once in a while, he takes you out to dinner, and snakes his arm through yours as you walk down the street, together.

The day you get into a fight with your boyfriend who pours a bottle of bleach on you – a failed attempt to lure you back into the house - it’s your father you call at 3AM. He picks you up and carries your bags. You wipe off the bleach with a wet towel. Most of it is gone, but the remains drip on the leather seat, causing his car to smell like the neighborhood pool.

For three months, you sleep on a mattress in your father’s home office. At night, he cooks salmon and spinach for you.  You eat it and look through the window. Project high rises cloud the skyline. You realize that this is the first time you’ve ever really lived in the same house together.

After work, you get drinks together. The bartender slaps your father on the back and says all his drinks are free. You watch him down shot after shot of Jameson. Once in a while, he orders a beer on the side. During one of these outings, you tell him about the time you decided to invite your whole family, except him, to your future wedding. He swallows his beer and looks at the drink menu scribbled on the wall. The reason I’m telling you this, you say, is that I’ve since changed my mind.

* * *

Lately, he’s been talking about his childhood, a lot. He talks of leaving the City, talks of buying an RV and wandering. You talk about recent accomplishments. About the excitement of getting a college degree, something neither he nor your mother were able to do. His eyes are elsewhere and you think he doesn’t hear you until you run into his friend, the funny one with the black wig. She congratulates you on your upcoming graduation. That’s why your father never has to worry about you, she says, scratching the scalp by her hairline. You try to see yourself through your father’s habitually inebriated eyes. You’re not sure of what you see. You wonder what your relationship would be like if your father felt he had to worry about you.

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