Many afternoons, before beginning her homework, Tahisha would reach beneath her bed and extract a wooden box containing a small spiral notebook. This was her journal, her most prized possession, the place where she released her bitterness, her sadness, her hopes of a different life; one far away from her aunt Dottie.
As she eased into her teenage years, Tahisha began to use her journal on a regular basis, recording the details of life in Irvington. Every day she’d bring it to life with stories from the neighborhood: Mrs. Williams threw her cat out of the fourth-floor window, and it lived; Mr. McPhillips’ corner store burned down, but he was happy because now he had money to move to North Carolina; Miss Cynthia, who lived down the block, went to jail for letting her boyfriend sell drugs out of her apartment—those types of things.
Sometimes Tahisha would write poetry. The poem on the first page of her ninth-grade notebook read:
No one knows what I got inside
The pain I hold, I gots to hide.
I been round and about searching for air
What I been looking for just ain’t there.
Watching missions of love
Turned to lessons of hate,
To leave this shit hole, I just can’t wait.
Looking for a savior to call my own,
Mama, will you ever come round?
Please, Mama, please,
Please take me home.
From time to time she’d walk to a certain Springfield Avenue corner where poets gathered, and recite her work. As she read from her notebook, some would nod their heads, while others would occasionally call out, Uh-huh, Yeah, and other such affirmation. When she read her poems, for a few moments she felt that she wasn’t alone in the world. Perhaps, losing her mother and grandmother, and living with an angry aunt, had all happened for a reason—and the reason was art; sound, words, emotion, her pain in black ink on white paper, and later—words cutting through the thick, hopeless air of the hood.
It was on that street corner, one steamy August night, that she met Theo. “That was one bad-ass poem,” he said simply, leaning his upper arm against a light pole so that her eyes were drawn to the size of his biceps and his wide chest stretching the fabric of his red T-shirt. “I write too.” She wondered if he was really speaking to her, but she looked around and noticed that no one else was listening, so she responded with a nod and shoved her fingertips awkwardly into the back pockets of her skin-tight jeans in an unconscious effort to display the subtle curve of her hips and size B breasts that had sprung to life over the last year.
Theo looked at Tahisha expectantly, as if he had passed her the ball and was waiting to see where she’d take it, but her eyes remained transfixed to the cracked pavement, examining a piece of chewing gum that had turned black and hardened into the shape of an elephant’s head. Finally he made one last attempt. “So what else you got?”
“Say what?” She looked at him now, his eyes warm brown, his hair shaved close to his head.
“What else you got? Poems—what else you got?”
“Oh.” Her fingers brushed her bottom lip and she summoned her attitude. “So what you got? You say you write, let’s hear it.”
“Aright, I’ll do it for ya, but I ain’t got all the words memorized, and I ain’t got it on me. Walk with me to my brother’s house; that’s where I’m staying.”
“How far yo brother live?”
“Just a few blocks away.”
“Is it worth the walk?” Tahisha tried not to smile, but she couldn’t control it.
“Bitch.” He chuckled, and his smooth lips parted, revealing perfect, straight white teeth. “You’ll let me know.” He placed the palm of his hand at the small of her back and urged her forward as if he had taken ownership of her—which for all intents and purposes he had.
Theo lived in a basement apartment, and when trucks sped down the avenue, the foundation of the house seemed to shake. The place smelled of mildew, old Chinese food, and men’s cologne.
Tahisha began to chew her lip. The last time she’d been alone with a boy, he was just that—a boy, an eighth grader named Mohammad who tried to stick his tongue down her throat and get his shaking hand inside her winter coat.
“Where’s your poetry?”
“You got someplace to be?” His eyebrows lifted.
The charade of toughness was becoming too difficult. “No,” she muttered.
“Then sit down and take a load off.” He pointed to a blue sectional with coordinated pillows. “Where you in school?”
“Yeah? Is old Mr. Harris still the principal?”
Theo shook his head. “Man, I spent lots of time in his office. These days, whatever you do, you get suspended, so it’s almost impossible to get an education unless you a saint.”
“I bet you do.” His stunning smile lit the room.
As they spoke Theo maneuvered his athletic body around the small apartment, retrieving glasses and Coca-Cola from the kitchenette and a large bottle of rum that was three-quarters empty from a small cabinet next to the television. Tahisha followed him with her eyes, marveling at his form. He was a grown man and she knew that despite her newly blossomed curves, she was not yet a woman. She still slept with a doll, giggled with her girlfriends in the school cafeteria, idolized rap artists on the radio.
A wide hand offered her a glass that tinkled with ice and alcohol and sweetness. Tahisha brought it to her lips and took a tentative taste. In movies novice drinkers often choked, but this went down smoothly, the rum barely noticeable in the familiar brown bubbles.
The alcohol began swimming through her veins, and she lost some inhibition. “So whatchu do?”
“Me? I was just laid off. I was working in shipping for a company in Elizabeth, but they got into some trouble, and last one hired, first fired, so it was me. But I got unemployment now, and a little night job—sort of off the books, covering a security guard shift for my cousin, so it’s all good.”
He was wonderful. The more she drank, the more she allowed herself to know it. “I’d love to hear a good poem right now.”
“You would? Well, I don’t know that I got a good poem, but I got a poem anyways.”
“Modesty, humbleness—my pastor says those are good things.”
He laughed. “Well, your pastor gonna love me.” Theo escaped into a bedroom and returned with a black-and-white marble notebook in hand. He began to read aloud with conviction, putting emphasis on the power syllables.
My brother was the moon, he was king a the streets.
Others tried to play him, slay him, but he had them all beat.
Guns packin’, ladies sackin’, he was hackin’ em up.
Bags a blunts, cunts, chumps, he was stackin’ em up.
Mama warned, “Baby, it’s comin’, ain’t but time—and yours is gone.”
That bullet snagged him, police they bagged him,
Left blood puddlin’ on the lawn.
That empty-eyed chick, wantin’ some shit, still comes round and starts to cry.
I shout, “He’s dead now! Clear your head now!
This shit gon’ kill, like my brother done die.”
Tahisha listened to the beat of the words, feeling their meaning resonate inside her. He was describing her streets, her neighborhood, those men in her world—the ones admired by the young, cursed by the old, and avoided by anyone in between. These were the ones who had captured the heart and veins of her mother and stolen her away.
Emotion rose up in Tahisha’s throat, and she pushed it back down into her chest. She raised her moist eyes and began to applaud. “All right, that’s all right, yes.”
Theo, taken aback by the length and sincerity of her response, lowered his body down next to her, lifted her hands into his own strong ones, and kissed each palm before placing them back on her lap and whispering, “Thank you.”
“When did you lose him…your brother?”
“It’ll be two years in September. He was only eighteen, but caught up with the gangs. We tried to get him out, begged him to leave town. That was the only way to do it. We were gonna send him to family in Virginia, but the streets swallowed him first.”
“I’m so sorry. My grandma used to say the dead are at peace and with God and all. I don’t know if I believe it.”
“I try to think that way.” He shook his head, his expression bitter.
Palms still tingling from the touch of his lips, Tahisha drained the remains of her glass and leaned back against the soft cushions, feeling herself float in a pool of drunken bliss. When Theo brought his hand to her cheek and placed his mouth gently against hers, she didn’t even flinch. It felt good and right; it felt magical.
His hands moved slowly over her body, measuring her readiness, her response. When he removed her clothing, it was in small half movements, exposing her smooth stomach, and then waiting; a breast, and a long pause; the button of her jeans, and what felt like an eternity to Tahisha, who had psychologically surrendered her girlhood long before he triumphantly removed her panties and entered her.
When he had finished and she had barely started, he rose abruptly from the couch. “I work nights.” He looked at the clock. “Shit, it’s six thirty, I gots to go, princess.”
Racing up the stairs with her trailing behind him, he said, “How’s Friday night?”
“Meet me here at five. I’m off that night.”
On the street he pressed his lips to hers and ran toward the bus that was about to pull up to the curb. Tahisha watched as he boarded, flashed the driver his transit card, and moved out of her line of vision. The bowels of the vehicle heaved and grunted, blowing black exhaust into her face, and in a moment he was gone. She was left standing on the corner breathing fumes and feeling wetness gather in her panties.
Theo brought her to parties where he’d introduce her as his woman, Tahisha, and danced with her in a way that mirrored what they did, now on a regular basis, behind closed doors. At first she felt embarrassed, but soon she learned to relax and enjoy it, in the same way that she had come to love their intimacy. Tahisha came to believe that anything bringing his hands into contact with her body was sacred and perfect.
When she sat in the church pew on Sunday mornings, next to her aunt and her younger cousins, Tahisha sang the hymns with gusto, and silently thanked God for Theo and the home she felt in his arms. After church she’d shake hands with the pastor and his wife and then half walk and half skip her way to Theo’s to spend the rest of the afternoon beneath his cozy comforter.
On one such Sunday, Theo took Tahisha to a gathering in Newark. When they entered the smoke-filled second-floor apartment, whatever magic Tahisha felt between them vanished. Theo was engulfed by a circle of strong black hands that shook his, and then passed him a joint the size of a small baseball bat. He made a lame attempt to include Tahisha by passing her the long smoking baton, but she shook her head. She was already beginning to feel light-headed from breathing the smoky air.
In the cramped kitchen, Tahisha found a group of girlfriends huddled together. A dark-skinned woman with large eyes and a fan of black lashes greeted her. Tahisha responded, “Hey, it’s like a chimney in there.”
“They just children in men’s bodies. Whatcha expect? Hisha, these are my girls, Nyajiah and Mattie.” The two other women looked her over, scanning her outfit.
“Nice pumps,” said the one with blond braided hair extensions. “Where’d you get em?”
“Um…my friend’s closet?”
The small group erupted with laughter.
“Here, sisters, from the cooler.” A man with a kind smile was pushing through the women carrying two six-packs of beer. He placed them on the counter and they were passed around.
Four beers later, Tahisha no longer felt grown-up and appealing—she felt sick. Making her way back to the living room, she found Theo seated on the couch, his eyes bloodshot and his hands clutching his latest drink.
“Theo,” she said, searching for some semblance of the man she had arrived with. He seemed not to hear her, so she moved directly in front of him and said his name again.
He looked up, but didn’t respond.
“Theo, I need to talk to you.”
“Go ahead, baby, my boys and I is listen’n.” Peals of laughter rose up all around him. Tahisha experienced each one like a slap.
“I need to go.”
“Is you turnin’ into a pumpkin, Cinderella?”
More laughter assaulted her until she stepped back away from them, catching her high heel on the carpet and wobbling for a moment before falling.
Those who had been disturbed during her downward descent turned with offensive glares to see what was pushing them, and the bellowing sound of amusement coming from Theo and his friends filled the room, drowning out the music and loud conversation.
An unexpected large hand reached underneath her arm and raised her to her feet. She felt a dull pain radiating from the side of her hip and winced, trying still to move herself away from the laughter, the humiliation—Theo.
“Hey, baby,” came the baritone voice attached to the man supporting her, “if you want, I’ll see you home.”
The man who had lifted her like a fallen petal from the carpet could have had the best of intentions, but Tahisha didn’t wait to find out. As soon as she achieved balance on her feet, she extracted her arm from the stranger and pushed her way through the crowd toward the front door. She walked down the two flights of stairs, clutching the banister with both hands and moving sideways in the hopes of avoiding another spill. At the outside door the cool night air met her face and swallowed her up, shocking her. At that moment, what was left of the burger and fries she had eaten for lunch rose violently into her throat. She grasped the metal handrail next to her and leaned over the raised concrete, sending a cascade of partially digested food and drink down onto the walkway below.
Peeling herself from the railing, Tahisha hobbled her way to the sidewalk. Her only thought was of home. She wanted to go home. She had no money and only a vague idea of where she was in relation to her aunt’s apartment. But she knew that if she reached one of the major avenues, she’d be able to find her way on foot or beg her way onto a bus that would bring her to a familiar neighborhood.
Although the hour was not late, barely past dinnertime, the streets were mostly deserted. A few young men sporting red bandanas or tilted red baseball caps gathered on a corner in front of a small grocery. Tahisha recognized them as gang members and crossed the street to avoid coming anywhere in their vicinity. She hustled forward, glancing back frequently to make sure that the young men were keeping their distance.
Tahisha found her face bumping the chest of a blond-haired man who had apparently just emerged with a companion from an apartment building. Startled, she looked up at him. His mop of hair fell over his eyes, partially hiding the redness spreading across the milky white that surrounded his steely blue irises.
“Excuse me,” she said, pulling back from him, trying to assess the lesser of two evils—these two white drug addicts or the Bloods.
For the second time that evening, she found a stranger’s hand grasping her arm. “Where you headed?”
“Home,” Her pulse quickened. “I’m going home,” she repeated, and tried to pull out of his grip.
He held on. “This is a rough neighborhood. Shit, look around you. I’ll get you home.”
“That’s okay, I know my way.”
“No, it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be right to send you on alone.” He was backing her toward the corner of the building.
“I’ll be just fine. Hey, this is my neighborhood—I walk here all the time. All the time! As a matter of fact, my boyfriend just sent me out to get him some snacks. He’s right up in that house over there.” She tried to lift her arm to point and he released her. Tahisha’s heart was now a basketball banging against her ribs, shaking her narrow frame.
She tried to slip past him, but he clutched onto her upper arms. “Hey, don’t go yet.”
She didn’t want to meet his gaze, didn’t want to know his face—that would make it real. But what choice did she have? “Look, I gotta get going.” Her eyes confronted his. “Like I said, I got people waiting.”
His grip tightened, and he shoved her toward a narrow alleyway that divided the brick building from a neighboring row house.
Teetering backward on stilettos, Tahisha twisted and turned her body trying to wrench her arms free.
“You’re losing it, man. Come on, let’s go.” The voice of reason came from the other light-skinned man, who wore a Mets baseball cap and a worried expression.
“Your friend says you have to go.” She tried to calm herself. Miraculously, the blond man paused and considered her words while he surveyed her firm breasts beneath the tight orange shirt, the gentle curve of her hips. For a moment Tahisha felt saved. He’d let her go and she’d walk the few blocks back to the party. She’d find Theo and wrap herself in his protective arms and never leave his side again.
A wry smile spread across the attacker’s ruddy complexion. Tahisha couldn’t tell if this was a good thing. Finally he offered, “He’ll wait,” and pushed her further back into the alley.
She turned to see if there were any escape options, but found only brick walls and a tall, locked gate topped with barbed wire. The only way out would be past him. Tahisha threw her body down to the ground and rolled right, freeing her arms from his grasp. As she rose to her feet, set on charging away, she felt his wide palm pull at her navel, and she was propelled downward onto the pavement.
“Bitch, we’re done when I say so.” His long legs straddled hers; he rolled her over, his hands pressing on her ribs with such force, she felt them cracking. Tahisha could barely breathe, could think of nothing more than living through each moment—taking in and releasing air from her lungs. “And we are not done yet.”
With his hips poised in the air, and adrenaline pumping through her veins, Tahisha seized what she feared was her last opportunity. Releasing a guttural scream, she jerked her right knee upward into his groin.
The result was immediate. The man let out an animal-like groan and pulled away from her. Tahisha shifted from beneath him and got up onto all fours before her waist was encircled one final time. Her back and head were smashed against the concrete, her loose pants were torn from her body, and his angry organ pounded into her with vengeance until he lay on top of her, spent.
Through a veiled twilight, Tahisha felt him being pulled from her, and she was once again able to take in air, each breath bringing a searing pain. Then she saw him being pressed up against the brick. There was a flash of metal and screams—and then more metal, more screams. There was a red bandana waving from a back pocket like a flag, and sets of high-top sneakers kicking him to the ground. She heard moaning and curses, and then she watched the feet pound away, leaving behind a scarlet marker on the rapist’s torso. Was it the letter B? Her mind was muddled.
Tahisha heard the siren long before the vehicle arrived—and so did he. He clawed his way back up the wall, pressing a palm over his now shredded T-shirt. Though crimson flowers bloomed where the box cutter had met flesh, he still stumbled out into the night, leaving Tahisha broken, with wounds that neither the hospital, nor her spiral notebook could possibly heal.