Nine was born Ninah Jude Brown in a cold single-bed room at Sparrow Hospital. It was 1979 in Lansing, Michigan, which meant that the White nurses were merciless in their “care” for her unmarried mother, Marcheline, as she writhed and shook her legs at the sheets like they were puppies nipping her ankles. These angels of mercy in their trapezoidal bonnets and bobby socks pursed their lips disapprovingly at Marcheline’s bare ring finger. Knowing there’d be no hovering husband to complain on her behalf, they refused her a cold compress as sweat poured from her feverish forehead, denied her ice chips when her lips cracked and her tongue went coarse, and would not hold her hand as her uterus contracted, for fear that the melanin would rub off.
In her epidural haze, she even thought she heard one of them tsk, “When will these nigger-girls ever learn?” Months later, Marcheline would rather absently repeat this to her mother, who stood several feet away, pushing pureed carrots beyond Nine’s puckered lips. Her back turned, Marcheline would fail to notice how her words bolted up her mother’s spine and rocked her for a moment, right where she stood, baby spoon suspended just out of Nine’s reach. Then came the tremble with unspeakable anger at her own hospital ward tale, wherein the nurses weren’t White but were just as full as vitriol and there was no sweet anesthetic to muffle their judgmental asides. Just as Nine would begin her hungry whimpers, her grandmother would emerge from her swoon of recollection and Marcheline would rush away from the bathroom mirror with makeup impeccably applied and race for the honking car downstairs in a sweater dress seemingly designed to make her date forget her new motherhood.
But courtship seemed light years away, when Marcheline timidly informed her nurses that the IV they’d inserted ached on the back of her hand. They sucked their teeth and, with exaggerated eye-rolls, lifted the adhesive and jiggled the chute around until Marcheline’s vein nearly ruptured. “Better?’ they smirked, reapplying the tape and patting the agitated IV in place.
For her part, Nine slid out of her mother as quickly as she could manage. Twenty hours of labor later, the (remarkably) Black obstetrician grinned as he placed the newborn girl in Marcheline’s exhausted arms. Nine couldn’t stop crying. Her lungs were a wonder to her.
“I know I’m not the most handsome man at the hospital, but there’s no need to cry about it!” the doctor cooed, his right eye wanly roaming the room while his left fixed on the baby.
Marcheline managed the weakest of smiles, grateful to the doctor for delivering the child, undamaged. Then she drifted into a sleep from which she would not rouse for a day and a half.
Her dreams, during those thirty-six fitful hours, were of David, Nine’s father, in the creased white uniform of a low-ranking naval officer. She dreamt of him mopping copious clusters of vomit from the decks of his ship, while quietly absorbing a string of surly verbal assaults leveled by a Greek chorus of superiors. She dreamt of him, drunk off his ass, in the stall of some disease-ridden bar’s public bathroom, wholly unaware of the trouble he’d be in when he returned to his base, two days late from shore leave. She dreamt of him in Perth, where he was stationed three months ago, bracing himself against the thick, tobacco spit the Kiwi natives lobbed at his feet, thinking him little better than the Aborigines they’d been persecuting for nearly a century.
Those who would visit Marcheline during her long stretch of subconscious convalescence–her mother, her best friend, her favorite male cousin–would assume that the grin playing over her lovely face was the warm and mirthful blush of new motherhood. That they were witnessing the smug and unfettered glee of vengeance never occurred to them.
Mother and child left the hospital three days after the birth, returning to the third-floor apartment Marcheline shared with her mother on Cavanaugh Street. As her best girlfriend, Jackie, pulled her little white hatchback up to the brick building with its burgundy awning and surrounding red-berried shrubs, Marcheline cried harder than she had in labor, cried so hard that Jackie began to fidget and reached instinctively for a Newport, so her mouth would be too full of smoke to blow any half-hearted hot air. Both women knew how hard it would be at the top of those hallway stairs.
Hadley Lillian Brown, who was single and vibrant and just making peace with the width of her hips, hips that were slowly, but steadily spreading like leavened dough under a damp towel, thanks to the metabolic slow-down that succeeded her twenties, thought it was preposterous that she was thirty-five years old and welcoming a grandchild.
In 1979, this was still something of an absurdity, though if Nine had grown up and gotten pregnant at sixteen, Hadley’s own age when Marcheline was born, no one would’ve blinked in 1995.
Hadley did more than blink. When Marcheline ambled through the door, already losing some of her month-nine waddle and holding a newborn girl-of course it would be another girl-Hadley huffed and “Hmph!’ed, bristling and eye-rolling and dramatically tugging and tying her silken robe over her ample hips in mock irritation. She’d continue this routine, along with a string of I told you sos, mumbled so frequently and fluidly that visitors thought she was praying a rosary.
It wasn’t that Nine wasn’t growing on her-she was, her elfin ears awkwardly sprouting from either side of a face so sweet you just wanted to bake it-but the kid and her unemployed mama were cramping Hadley’s style.
And Hadley had such lavish, extravagant, superfluous style. You, unsuspecting reader, have never seen such painstaking, obsessive, preposterous style as Hadley Brown’s. A satin scarf ever swept around her head and neck on the way to the grocery store. Dark, cat-eye sunglasses worn exclusively for bill-paying, as though she couldn’t have Her Public catching her singing her own gas and electric checks. Every woolen sweater folded into its very own scented bag. Shoeboxes stacked so intricately in the tight shelving above her hangers it looked like she was building a Lego village. Silks uniformly hung with silks, polyesters with polyesters, and cashmeres with cashmeres in a closet so meticulous and full of aromatic sachets that Nine would spent the first six years of her life burrowing to the back of it, convinced she’d find the snowy path to Narnia.
Hadley adored jazz, a love for which her eldest brother, Simon, was responsible, though she would always claim she’d come into the appreciation of the straight-ahead subgenre all on her own, by the spontaneous enlightenment of her own sophistication. And until she became pious in her mid-fifties, she always kept a bit of champagne chilling in her vegetable crisper for just the right occasion.
But even with all her amenities and flourishes, this was not the life that Hadley envisioned for herself in her thirties, and there was no one to blame but her daughter. Marcheline had turned Hadley’s life into a house in a really bad neighborhood. Hadley was always being robbed and no one would show up to help her retrieve all the things she’d lost: her innocence at the hands of Marcheline’s no-good (married) daddy; her independence at the ever-open hands of the girl herself, who was always reaching for money, which Hadley gave easily, and love, which Hadley wouldn’t have given even if she had it; and now her chance at a finally empty nest, where she could preen and entertain and perhaps, at long last, procure for herself a husband.
Didn’t most mothers of nineteen-year-olds get to relish the sudden luxury of their absence? Why then was Hadley on her hands and needs, scrubbing spit up out of the carpet and ritually waking at 2:17 am, to the piercing wails of a newborn? Where was the reprieve?
After she wrung dry her I told you sos, Hadley began a litany of get out, get out, get outs that were just as fervent and earnest. She would never admit, not even when Nine was grown and gone, how vacant her heart would’ve been without them to occupy it.