Work backward. Think of the moment they married, between the 8 and 11 o’clock services at your church on that July Sunday when you were ten. Think of the accordion partition, cordoning off their nuptials from the simultaneous Youth, Singles, and General Sunday School classes being held in various other sections of the sanctuary. Think of iridescent streamers that should’ve been there, descending from the walls in curling tendrils, or the tiny votive candles with their wavering yellow-orange flames, or the delicate boxes of cherry cordials offered as party favors. Pity that you had to dream them. Pity that they were whipped from the same imaginative froth that conjured unicorns, castles, and faeries to fill all your lonely spaces. Think of the eleven or so guests–three of whom you did not recognize–gawking at the vow exchange like a side-ring act at the circus.
Remember that you felt pretty. Your hair had been hot-combed for the occasion and wrangled into a menagerie of rubberbands, twisted into a series of puffy little ropes. You could hear the plastic pink barrettes at the ends clacking gently whenever you turned your head. You were turning your head all day, eager to hear all the overlapping grown folks’ conversations. Like a chorus in the round, there were toasts and traditions and whispers of lingerie.
There were no warnings.
Consider the pomp and the tumult: the non-alcoholic champagne for toasting; your grandmother’s ex-boyfriend, pitching his lilting baritone above the din of clinking glasses; your mother’s cavernous absence, once as she absconds to Centennial Lake for wedding photographs, then later, as night falls and her new husband whisks her off to Delaware.
Who honeymoons in Delaware? You should have noted that. You should have recognized forboding when you felt it.
Recall how unaccustomed you still were then, to the tenor of your stepfather’s accent, how it still reminded you of coconut and calypso. Because you were young, you were full of stereotypes. Because you were young, you knew nothing of Jamaicans you hadn’t gleaned while watching the “Hey, Mon!” skits on In Living Color. Because you were young, you thought brown skin meant common culture, that Black Americans and Black Jamaicans understood one another. You did not know that patois was not language, but lifestyle.
But you mustn’t drift into the lofty.
Think of the Peptol pink of your dress and how you grinned and you grinned and you grinned. Think of the navy blue suit worn by your best friend in the world, a boy (named Kenya). Note now, as you never could have then, that he was your insulation. He, of the goofy faces and marathon games of tag, he whose single-mother upbringing left him mannered and intuitive and kind. He, who encouraged you to forget what you were getting into and allowed you a well-deserved respite from all your tiring precocity. You would love him, long before you understood why and long after he disappeared.
Pull the recollections around you like an electric blanket. Pull, until you’re so uncomfortable that you smother and wriggle and sweat. Pull until you have no choice but to let go.
Only then will it become apparent that when they were pronounced man and wife, you called him Dad because your own father was missing. In those days, you uttered the word with abandon. You uttered, unaware of what would come: the ten-year litany of accusations; your volleying waltz across their marital chessboard; your mother’s cavernous absence.