- In the Old Days
The call came on a Friday evening as I was lying in bed, grading student essays.
“My husband,” the sniffling woman on the other end of the line said, “is dying and it seems that—” She paused and it sounded as though she was swallowing more air than she wanted to. “And it seems that his final wish is to spend a few minutes with you.”
Once these words were out of the way, the woman’s voice grew a tad more firm, raspy, but still confident, as she immediately turned to the logistical details.
“Time,” she said, “is of course of the essence. We would fly you over on the earliest New York-Miami flight possible. My husband is still here at home. Of course we can get you a hotel room nearby. The house is small, but big enough that you could stay with us if you like.”
The woman’s husband was my father, but I had never met him. I know only one side of the story: my mother’s. My father had returned to Haiti during what he’d considered a promising time for the country. A thirty year father-son dictatorship had just ended and he wanted to use the education degree he’d managed to get while driving a New York City cab to start a school there. My mother stayed behind in Brooklyn, promising to join him a few weeks later. Instead she discovered she was pregnant with me and filed for divorce.
“I’m not sure I can just drop everything,” I told my father’s wife that Friday evening. “I have school.”
“On the weekend?” she asked.
“On the usual,” I answered.
“So you’re a student?” she asked.
“A teacher like him,” I said.
“What do you teach?” she asked.
“Books,” I said. “I mean English.”
At that point it was obvious that we were both trying way too hard.
“Please come see him,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
But I already knew I would. [End Page 355]
I didn’t jump on the next flight though like someone with nothing better to do, like someone who’d been waiting for that phone call her entire life. Instead I continued grading my students’ papers, which were not really essays, but their initial—I had asked for primal—reactions to a piece of literature that they had voted on as a class to read. I had given them a choice between the school’s limited options, Carson Mc-Cullers’s Member of the Wedding and Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and being recent strangers themselves to both English and to America, the majority of them voted for The Stranger.
“What the fuck?” began one boy’s paper. “I don’t think I’d be so kalm if my moms died.”
Before the phone rang, I had scribbled “AMEN BROTHER” in red ink, in the margin of his single-spaced stream of consciousness masterpiece, but after hanging up, I wrote him a long note scolding him for oversimplifying then gave him an F.
“Already she got in touch with you,” my mother said when I met her at Nadia’s, a Haitian restaurant that she had started, and named after me. We were sitting at our table, a corner one for two, which allowed her a view of the entire place, from the customers’ entrance, through the bar, to the kitchen. Above our heads was one of my mother’s oeuvres, one of several of her paintings which covered the restaurant walls, her home, and nowhere else. Most of my mother’s paintings were trompe d’oeils—à la Magritte, as she liked to say—in which the subject, person or thing, always seemed to be trying to escape the frame. The one above our table, the one that marked our spot, was the restaurant’s signature painting. It was of a plumb brown baby girl swimming in a large bowl of pumpkin soup that seemed to be spilling out of the round frame.
The place was packed because a popular konpa band had a ten o’clock...