The Big Feeling
Most days, being alive was harder than she’d imagined. She’d been named Siani, meaning “God is gracious,” and if you named your child that, you did so in hopes that He might bring her father back in ways other than the incessant reminder of her last name, Washington, might look upon your sleeping figure, crying even then, and bless you with a way to stay afloat, to raise a baby girl into the woman you’d already failed to become. Then, you’d add a middle name, Grace, for emphasis because you needed it that badly. Even then, Siani wouldn’t get the house with stairs, and tall, white doors, and a proper lawn out front with grass and a mailbox. Nothing that was all hers. And if you didn’t have companionship, create it, or so it seemed the women around her thought, as they lie down with anyone, bearing the gift of life which came to be less of a real gift and more of a stocking stuffer, fun for a day and forgotten about after that, babies nappy-headed and unkempt. But a child was just another mouth to feed and if they weren’t born long-leggedly athletic or otherwise prodigious then this world was not for them. And while she thought love both silly and magnificent, she couldn’t even imagine the inside of an intimate scene. Other, more important, more pressing things had kept her mind. A dire thought it was, though, because she could use some love, she really could. And yet, this life was too heavy on her heart. It would be a sin to involve anyone else into this mess.
As it turned out, no prayers or wishes could help Siani find grace because it didn’t exist. At least nowhere she could see it. Every afternoon she drove past her old elementary school, wanting to be surprised at the men huddled on the corner, no doubt selling heartbreak in all forms, disheartened by that fact, but ultimately understanding why. Recognizing that sometimes knowing what pain feels like doesn’t stop it from consuming you and when the lights in the apartment go dark for the third time in a week, your grandma is dying, says take care of your sister, baby, and you can’t even do that right with this grocery store job, and who is there to take care of you, and then someone is. They offer you money and guidance and brotherhood, so you stand on that corner in the biting cold or the baking heat parceling out pain day after day. Even when you know it’s wrong. Even when you’d do anything else if you felt you had a choice.
Heartbreaking was one way to put it. Siani had lived here all her life, a place where even the houses looked like they were grieving loss, where the sidewalks were permanently discolored, how much blood was spilled on each square? She brushed shoulders with twelve year-old boys in puffy black coats, baggy jeans, and sneakers too new and too clean for this place, unless… and yes after a second look there would undoubtedly be a bulge protruding from their waistbands, only slightly concealed by the coat. So, on Christmas night while she watched as her baby brother made snow angels in his winter coat, she imagined it black and misshapen and wept. It was much too big a feeling for any one person to be able to carry and also survive, especially here, so this became her normal. Why of course, this was urban living! Hardship was to be envied, living on bare bones was what hip-hop was about, and the miracle of thecome up wouldn’t exist if there were nowhere to come up from. She was stronger and smarter than she might have been otherwise, blessed by the struggle. It was enough.
So, when she saw him, he was but another stupid face, unimportant. She had more crucial things to do like ignoring that Big Feeling, which was hard enough. And she needed no one’s assistance being broken, thank you very much. And yet. He was slightly tall, slightly light-skinned, skin like sugar left on the pan a little too long, a face like daylight and a build like nightfall. His haircut was too clean, though, a deal breaker. She always thought that guys who had weekly appointments with their barbers were too self-absorbed to be taken seriously and anyone dumb enough to entertain them deserved the hurt. He began to drop by her new desk job every afternoon with Peanut Chews from the corner store and some new stupid line that disgusted her, inside at least. He stole her shy smiles and she blinked more than she used to; she forgot all about pretending and didn’t cry as much as she thought she needed to. He should have left her alone, though, it’s true, because life was hard and it was meant to be. There was no love and she really was smart enough to know that there was sex and lust and paying the bills, but none of that equaled L-O-V-E and only weak women thought about when he’d come by again. Braced themselves for longing and heartache for the chance that it’d be worth it, the whole damned thing, if they went to bed twice a week dreaming instead of weeping, if their lives could be a little less heavy on their chests. She knew that was weakness, which was worse than anything else, weakness, and no amount of dimples and candy and sweet nothings could be worth being vulnerable. So, no, she would not go out to a nice dinner with him and, no, she would not fall into the trap, however silly and magnificent it could be. No matter how relieving it might be to bring someone else into her mess, someone who could share some of it. This was another hardship she could handle, just like urban living and tiny black coats. Anyway, he would probably break her in the only way she hadn’t yet been broken. She knew all of this. She did it anyway.
And for the first three months it was silly in the sweet way that they giggled in between kisses. Magnificent the way his skin looked soft like butter that first night he’d slept over, butter left out to soften under the rays of the breaking sun, under the sheets that had been only hers for this long. You wouldn’t know it though, just looking, would never be able to imagine that there was a time that the white sheet didn’t just cover those parts of his that were only for her eyes, she hoped, while his rough fingertips grazed her neck, gave her something like kinetic confidence, made her do things she thought she was too shy to. She thought she was above sex, and love, but she’d tasted it, just a nibble, and she was ravenous. Anyway. He came over one night, a Wednesday, it’s funny that everything seems to happen on those days that are just placeholders, Wednesday. He came into her apartment the night they were to have dinner, a nice dinner.
She’d gotten real done up. She slept the night before with her hair wrapped in an old silk, praying each curl would soak up the shea, be left shiny and soft and able to easily be pressed out. She massaged the cream into her scalp so that she could feel it in her skull, the way her mama used to do it, kind of. She took care of herself, each movement gentle, embraced the curves of each cuticle, caressed the angle of her cheekbone with rouge. Her mother would say, be kind and you will always be beautiful, but Siani knew that was mama talk and looks mattered as much as anything else. She might not have utilized it much, but she knew she was all woman, full lips and hips and everything else. She’d been too skinny growing up, bones they’d called her, but somewhere along the way she’d gotten full in the places that mattered, not her heart, but her ass, of course.
He came through the dingy door frame, tall enough that the dipped indentations of wave that adorned his crown were almost touching the off white ceiling, big enough that she forgot her tongue somewhere back in front of the mirror. Blinked three times, the scent of kidney beans, her mom had just sent her some from wherever she stayed these days, reminding her of home, whatever that was. Her eyes swam, she felt the prickle of excitement somewhere between her navel and her knees, knew nothing good could come from this feeling, pushed it away, she was stronger than that. Kidney beans. Kidney beans and the harsh light that flickered in the doorway and she could again speak. He did first. “So you just gonna stand there, fine as hell in that little thang, and can’t even say hi to a brotha?”
“And?” She squinted her eyes, tilted her head fifteen degrees to the right, pursed her lips in a way that made her look somehow mean and sexy at once, or so she hoped.
“And... I came all this way and I damn sure know you didn’t get your hair laid like that just to be giving me attitude…” He looked at her like he was trying to undo the knot of her brain, trying to figure out if this would be worth the trouble at all. On an exhale, he leaned his shoulder and the side of his head right above his ear against the door frame, exhausted with the prospect, but clearly not going anywhere. She moved closer now, slowly, and he reached out a clumsy hand, chin down, thickly lashed eyes up, fully playing into his new role as a hurt baby boy. She didn’t know if it was instinct or lust, but she put her hand in his and let herself be swung into him. The nice dinner would have to wait.
Slowly, and to her horror, she learned him. A lot more than should have been advised, she learned his dirty and his clean, too much knowing for a girl who was as independent as shewho used men for their time and attention. She did not sacrifice. Three days after that Wednesday night, he came around again. He’d called her, of course, since then, spent hours tangled up in the coiled wires of the off-white house phone, him, words smooth like warm honey milk, her, fighting the blush, just barely. Not to mention the two nights in between, when he just couldn’t get off work in time, (she’d learned that his job was a touchy thing, a thing not to be prodded), he’d paint her pink and giggly with ideas and plans for when they could be skin to skin once again. Saturday.
He showed up at her door again, a couple knocks, a Yo, Si, you here?, and she was. Instead of the usual crisp, white button up shirt, a heathered grey t-shirt lay over his chest, soft, hugged his biceps. Just as easily, draped in deep blue cotton sweatpants, feet adorned in gleaming white Nike Air Force 1’s. His walk was a little less sauve than she remembered and as her gaze traveled up past the bulging veins of his forearms, lingered on the sheen of his full bottom lip, they landed on a gleam in his eye. A glint that shimmered with a tantalizing seduction, but deeper, a sense that he was trying hard to ignore something else. She decided to ignore the latter idea, because really, that wasn’t part of their thing. Caring.
As their kisses grew heavier and more forceful, his hands on her body like he wasn’t really feeling her, like maybe if he pressed up closer, grabbed her harder, he could feel whatever it was he was trying to feel. She looked past the walls, imagined the kitchen on the other side, this wasn’t so bad, just new. His pawing on her back was what she wanted, for this was sexual liberation, two beings conspiring separately. Her eyes began to swim, she was probably just dizzy from sleep, she couldn’t get away from the glint, his eyes. When he became rough in a way that wasn’t sensual and he threw her on the bed, towered over her for a second, she caught the glimmer of a droplet gathered on that very full lip. Sweat. But sweat didn’t move like that, drip that way, and then she saw his eyelashes, wet and clumped together, dark and shiny. A tear. She watched it in slow motion, like molasses instead of saltwater, brown against his complexion, rolling rolling, down creamy cheekbone and honed jaw. She watched it like a movie, a supernatural event, that tear, more curious than worried. Because, really, it was never okay to cry, and yet this divine being was raining his very own holy water onto her bare skin. He faced away, sunk into the bed next to her so that his elbows rested on his thighs which pressed up against hers and the moment was gone. There was no tantalizing, no allure, the god had fallen and the feeling was big. Too big to ignore. He was man, mortal, and unfortunately it seemed, so was she.
She sat up, ignored the growing air bubble rising from her abdomen to her lungs, caught in her throat, tucked her clasped hands into the crack between her thighs. His head had been bowed somewhat in shame at first, but the feeling had overtaken him so that he now stared straight ahead, past the wall and into the kitchen, molasses trailing rivers on his skin. She hoped that he would pretend. Be strong and fight that big feeling, it really was the right thing to do. He shifted easily so that he could face her, easily like this was something he could get used to, facing her. Searched her face through the shattered glass that was his, no, smooth glass. It seemed like he had been renewed somehow, yes, the glass had shattered but only to give way to this new self. His eyes shone with the realization. He leaned into her space and spoke.
“I know you.”
She did not want to know what he meant by this, but she could guess. Know was a confusing word. Know like history and ancestry and big, tall dreams, no. Know like sweat and tears and that feeling that you’d go anywhere with them if only they’d ask, maybe. She wanted to agree, thought it romantic and lovely that he would say this, but felt the gnawing of terror in her chest. What kind of man looked like that, dressed like that, got a haircut every week, to cry in front of a woman he hardly knew. Know is a confusing word. But still. He had to be spitting some kind of game, ready to turn his back on her as soon as she joined him in that sun that he seemed to be standing in. Would leave her out there to bake, warm and alone. He was still staring intently at her expression, in which she showed no signs of having heard him at all. He continued.
“You remind me of her, for real. It’s hard to say, so listen, aight? I have a sister, I mean, had a sister, Kris. She was that type that was too smart, you know? Had brothas chasing her around for a word or two and she couldn’t even get her head out of them books. She looked out for me, though, back when I was a peanut-headed ass boy getting jumped around the block, tryin’ too hard to be down. Would snatch me up off that corner before I got myself hurt too bad, yell at me the whole ride home to that house I thought was too big to let me be cool in the hood, rub Vaseline on my elbows and knees in the bathroom til dinner. It hurt when she died, like I was by myself, you feel me? I ain’t really been the same since, I guess, I wonder sometimes if she’d still be yelling at me when I…”
He trailed off, obviously thinking about something he wasn’t going to say out loud and so she waited. He looked up to the ceiling fan, spinning lopsidedly, like he had to gather his thoughts, find the right words. She noticed he didn’t stutter, never used filler words like um or like or well, just thought about it. Mid conversation he would just pause. She looked up at the fan, too.
“It’s her memorial thing tomorrow. The whole fam goes down to our house in Virginia, eats Gran’s greens and carrot cake, celebrates her life. It’s been ten years and I ain’t never been. I don’t remember the last time I seen any of them, now I think about it. Been ignoring it, I guess.” She coughed, cleared her throat.
“I’m sorry about your loss. If you want to go to the thing you can still make it if you leave tonight. I don’t wanna hold you back.” She kept her eyes on the ceiling fan, spin spin spinning. He’d leave, she knew.
“It’s not like that, though. I mean, you remind me of her. It scared me before, made me think of them other chicks so down to get a reaction out of me, it could be so easy to be with them, no questions asked. But you, all you had to do was look at me and I’m out here wanting to be seen by you, telling you all kinds of shit I ain’t never told myself, not for real. And all you did was look. That’s scary shit.”
He was kind of in her face now, talking to her extended neck, she still couldn’t look at him, so she focused on the dead fly stuck in the ceiling light. Must’ve been the one that had been nagging at her all these nights, finally went on and died. She tilted away from him, stared up and blinked, the bubble in her chest trying to escape, but she gulped and thought about the dead fly and her momma, and really it didn’t help.
“All I’m saying is… I ain’t scared no more, Si. Of my family or any of it. And I think it’s cuz of you. I want you to come with me. We can leave tonight if you’re down.”
He looked at her earnestly now, no trace of his old self, though the waves and biceps had gone nowhere. His eyes were squinted now, reading her expression, or lack thereof, again and she noticed that the moon had crept into the bedroom. Bright, but not quite full, it had illuminated the whites of his eyes, his teeth when he spoke, and only then did she realize that the power had gone out. It was dark. At some point that they’d been sitting there, him expressing, her ignoring, the light had gone away. Neither of them had noticed. He was still looking at her, no doubt reading her, trying to find her answer before she could, somehow. She looked at him like she had maybe been asleep the entire conversation and had just now awoken. All the while, she thought of a way out. Thinking of a way out, but knowing, and really knowing, that it wasn’t a question of if, but of when she would leave it all behind for him. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she might do anything to be near him. Still, she tried.
“You’re mad, or sad, or whatever. I get that. But you don’t know what you’re getting into. I bet we’ll be fine, it’ll probably be exciting to rush out without thinking. But when we get to that one tree, you know the big one off the highway, they way everybody knows they’re not home anymore, you’re gonna look at me. You’re gonna look at me and you’re not gonna see the girl you think you’re looking at. The one you just made up. I’m sorry, but I don’t want you to go into this thinking I’m something I’m not, some miracle, something special.”
She knew he’d see her now, as she was. She pulled her gaze from the fan, just her head at first until her eyes started to ache from the strain and had no choice but to follow and land on his. And this was why she had avoided it. That huge thing, his eyes jumping down her bones just like she’d known, something heavy and light running through her left side. She couldn’t look away and he didn’t want to. She felt the overwhelming urge to cry, but she didn’t know how, so she just looked. Blinked three times. The sky had begun to lighten, still deep navy blue, but less so, and she knew.
“Do you have your stuff here?”
Editor’s note—An earlier version of this story ran in the Spring 2019 issue of New Square. It runs again here as part of a celebration of our inaugural class of Pushcart Prize nominees.