by Angela Souza
When I’m alone, I can’t seem to silence the words in my head. Loud. Invasive. Destructive. “Beep! Beep!” screams the distant traffic outside. The screaming horns jolt me out of my speculation. I look up the long winding stairwell that I’m standing in, sigh, and resolve to keep climbing. I’m almost there. Filled with hesitancy and furtiveness, I wipe my sweat-tinged brow and slowly start walking up the stairs.
Seven, eight, nine, ten…
Just five more steps. I’ve gone up this stairwell so many times before that I know exactly when I’ll reach the top. Bracing myself for that moment, I still my mind and keep climbing. She must have done the same thing that night when she climbed these same stairs, one last time…
Finally on the roof of our tall, brick, apartment building, I’m hit by the crisp, night air. The sounds of the city, Manhattan, are like a chorus each playing its tune in unison. It’s the song of a city that never sleeps.
It’s a beautiful place. A place that she’d called home for several years. A place that she just about ran to escape the nightmare that was her first home. It was a place that offered all the familiar prizes of newness: a fresh start, hope, and abounding opportunities. She brought her two children along with her. My brother and I weren’t yet in grade school when we arrived at this new land, but despite our youth, we realized that we were escaping. We too arrived in Manhattan with a renewed sense of vitality, of expectancy, that this place would be better than the last. Manhattan was our new home.
And what of our last home? I was a mere five years old when I realized that I hated Papa. It was his home that we lived in back then. There seemingly was always a distaste that I had for him, but it wasn’t until I was five and in kindergarten that I realized I hated the man. It wasn’t until I was five that I realized the extent of just what he did to hurt my mama. His daughter.
I remember it like it was yesterday. My then three-year-old brother Dale and I were in our bed sleeping, when I heard the violent booming of his raspy, raised voice.
“You out whoring with Woodson again???”
Instinctively, I put my arm around Dale, and in one swift motion covered his eyes and ears while holding him tight. The instinctive nature of the motion is proof enough that this scenario happened far too often. Even still, each time it occurred, the fear and anxiety felt as fresh as an open wound. I held Dale tight, for his comfort as much as my own, and tried to imagine that I was in a distant land. In a land where fathers didn’t hurt daughters, where children didn’t live in fear, where mothers didn’t have to try and hide their bloodied and bruised faces from their children.
As an adult, I understand my grandfather’s misplaced anger. His was a life full of hardship. The life of a janitor in Mississippi was nothing to write home about. My grandfather, a proud and hard-working man, was virtually invisible to his white superiors. It was bad enough that the men who were several years his junior referred to him as a boy.
To add salt to an already open wound, one of those young bosses viewed his daughter as collateral. Her sweet, dark body was a fair trade in exchange for the "honor" of being one of a handful of black men allowed to work at their company. My grandfather was stripped even further of his dignity. The worst thing about the situation was that he blamed mama. His raging was always aimed at her, and not the man who forced her into a sexual relationship that produced my brother Dale.
Consequently, it was that same night of Papa’s grand accusation that my mama began to plot our escape. She had little education and even less money, but she knew that we had to get away. She began to save: pennies, nickels, quarters, and tips from her waitressing job, any bit of money that she could get. She saved and saved.
Mama always snuck and read the Clarion-Ledger, Papa’s favorite newspaper, in the mornings after cleaning up after us. One particular day, I could tell that something had caught her eye. From then on, she went about her days and chores with a renewed zeal. I eventually asked her, “Mama, what did you read in that paper that has you so excited?”
To which she simply replied, “Baby, we’re moving to Manhattan soon. Mama’s going to get a good job up there; you’ll see.” She winked at me, and I knew that I had a secret for keeping. I didn’t know anything about any Manhattan, but I dreamt of it night and day. Manhattan was to me a mythical unicorn; it was Neverland. It was the place where all my childish dreams would surely come true.
It was all a lie.
I run my hands through my long thick curls and shake away the past, as I stand on the rooftop. I pace back and forth slowly while choking back silent, angry, reluctant tears. Looking around the rooftop, I walk closer to the edge and look down. Closing my eyes, I see my mother’s face. Her smooth, chestnut-toned skin, short, brown curls, and beautiful smiling eyes didn’t tell the story of such a difficult life. I try my best to remember and retrace history. Hopefully, I can acquire some clue to provide more information about why she would choose to walk up these same stairs every day for a month, and then finally leap off the building to her death.
For nearly two weeks, I've climbed this rooftop daily, looking, searching, LONGING for answers, and leaving more confused than the day before. And again, the universe refuses to lend any clarity to me. I look up at the night sky one more time, sigh and walk back towards the door, descending the all-too-familiar stairwell.
It’s another night on the rooftop. I’ve been coming up here more frequently. Once a day quickly turned into twice a day. Some days I even come up here on my lunch break. It seems that I’ve been losing track of time as well. Today was the third day that I’ve been late coming back to work because of the time spent up here. My supervisor brought me into her office today for a stern talk because of it.
“Sula, I’m worried about you.”
"Pat, I can assure you that I'm fine. I've just been going through a difficult time."
Patricia shifts in her seat. Her cascading, blonde curls frame her worn and aging face with a youthful bounciness that seems contradictory. She opens her mouth to speak and then hesitates. Feigning confidence, she straightens her back and blurts out,
"I know that you're having a tough time. But if you can't keep it together, then maybe you should consider different options than working here. I hate to sound insensitive, but we can't afford not to you have you fully present. Your work is suffering, you're unresponsive, you…"
Her voice starts to drift away. I know that my livelihood is hanging by a thread, but all I can think of is the rooftop. All I can see is my mother's face. I can only hear her laugh. And I can just about feel her as she falls away from me.
I love you more than life itself. I'm falling apart and ashamed. Your grandfather was right about me. You all deserve more. I love you, and I hope that one day we can all be free. I'm tired. I'm so sorry.
Your grandfather was right about me… Those words reverberate in my head. I shuffle the letter that my mother wrote in between my fingers. Sitting with my back against the entrance door to the rooftop, I ruminate on her words. As if to force things to start making sense to me, I repeat them and ponder them with a nervousness that just about drives me insane.
Your grandfather was right about me.
Right about what? Papa has only ever hurled insults at my mother. Stupid this, useless that. Dummy. Whore. That one was his favorite; I could feel the venom from his tongue as he so often spit the words at my mother, "DIRTY WHORE.” My mind can't comprehend any rightness in his words.
Even as a child, I can remember wondering how it was possible for someone to think so lowly of someone I loved so deeply. My mother was worth so much more than he realized. How can the world make sense when we can't even come to agree on such a simple, straightforward truth?
In the blurred haze of nights turning into days that soon return to nights, it came to me so clearly and so suddenly. It was the moment that I finally remembered.
Way back when we first arrived in Manhattan, I remember the enthusiasm that my mother carried. I remember her arriving home bone tired from her job as a short order cook, and still mustering the energy to laugh and play with Dale and me before sending us off to bed. I remember home cooked meals, and lean times that felt so full of love and light that a child would never know the difference. I remember smiles, and kisses and laughter and hugs; those were the good times that we shared.
But there were other memories, ones that had been pushed into the dark corners of my mind, that I'm recalling now as well. I remember the sudden "shift changes" at her job that led to later nights for my mama. I remember days with little food, and the sudden influx of strange men in our home, Misters or Uncles that never cared a damn for my brother or me. At least they were never around long enough to show us that they did. I remember being too young to understand why her enthusiasm had unexpectedly disappeared.
What came to me today was the memory of balled up wads of cash on mama's nightstand, every time that Mister or Uncle would leave.
I run my fingertips up the wall as I silently count the steps until I reach the top of the stairwell… Seven, eight, nine, ten…
As I trace the broken pieces of my life, I'm realizing the interconnectedness of the tragedies that shaped us. My grandfather's bitterness, my mother's guilt, my brother's regret (for his very existence being a constant reminder of my mother's violation), and my feelings of despair. We have been dominoes crashing one into another, causing each other's affliction, and thoughtlessly being none the wiser of it.
My mother walked up these stairs every day for a month until she finally plunged to her death, stepping down off the ledge. I know now that I may never completely
understand why she did what she did. After a month of walking in her footsteps, today I realize that it's okay if I never come to understand fully. Having reached the top of the stairwell, I step out onto the rooftop. The brisk air hits me, instantly refreshing and uplifting my soul. As I inhale, I look around. The rising sun is beginning to illuminate the shifting night sky.
The dew sits atop the roof while down below the city begins to awaken. The promise of a new day is enlivening Manhattan, and I pause to breathe it all in.
I love you, and I hope that one day we can all be free. Mama's words are etched into my heart. Taking one last look around the rooftop and down at the city, I turn and walk toward the door. I never knew that freedom could feel this simple. As I descend the stairwell, I feel my burden lifting and know that I'll never return to the rooftop again. Simple as that.
Angela Souza is passionate about the healing ability of storytelling through writing. She exercises this passion through her own writings, which include poetry, essays, and a marriage blog that offers advice to newlyweds. You can find more of her work at Love Notes by Jazzymae Photography. Angela is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. She received her B.A. in Sociology and Religious Studies from Case Western Reserve University in 2010. She resides there with her two beautiful sons, Noah and Ezra, and husband Omari.