The first time I thought about killing Jeffrey, we were sitting in front of a white backdrop, holding our breaths and wearing matching embroidered shirts flaunting a last name that felt like gumballs inside my mouth. Mom wasn’t Jeffrey’s wife, and I wasn’t Jeffrey’s kid.
I sat between them as instructed by the Sears employee posing as a photographer. Jeffrey’s big palm lingered on my thigh, and the heat emanating from it made the skin under my jeans hot with shame. He lifted his hand momentarily to reach his mouth. With his tongue, bumpy, thick, and seemingly swollen, he licked all four fingers, but since he didn’t gather enough spit, he licked them again. A faint string of saliva stretched from his mouth to his hand, and before I could swat it away, the hand reached my head and forcibly flattened the curly strays that rebelled against the humid July air.
“I thought I gave you enough money to get the girl’s hair done,” he said to Mom through gritted teeth. She continued to look straight ahead, forcing a wider grin—the scar on her face folded into her cheek like a dimple curving along her smile lines.
Mom did my hair that morning, struggling as she had for all sixteen years of my life. Without keeping in touch with my father or his family, she never learned how to style my hair. She would try but become flustered and eventually give up. During most of elementary school, she’d forget to comb my curls, and they would knot at the ends. My hair would get so matted either Mom or Jeffrey would shave it. I never knew whose idea it was, but they both did it from time to time, as it was easier to manage a shaved head than a mop of kinky curls.
With the money Jeffrey gave her, Mom bought herself name-brand foundation and concealer to mask her scar. The deep reds against the pale white of her skin had somewhat faded over time. The gash itself seemed smaller, but the stitches, all five of them—sewn horizontally, unevenly, haphazardly by Jeffrey’s hands—still rose like little welts.
It was the stitches, not the gash itself, that made people look twice. They told the real story. They were Jeffrey’s way of marking his territory, as deliberately as an animal pissing on a patch of dirt it wished to call its own.
When it came down to it, Jeffrey’s girls were pretty and broken in all the right places. I heard once (by eavesdropping on my mom and a neighbor) that, before Mom, there was a beautiful woman with a sharp nose, big striking brown eyes, and a mouthful of rotten teeth. Another girl he picked up from Willa’s was supposedly just as beautiful, but she had a missing limb and an abusive ex-husband. Then along came Mom with a gash on her face and a crack habit and a mixed-race kid who looked nothing like her. Jeffrey was that bargain shopper who only took home discarded pieces from a clearance rack. He had a good eye for all the pretty things with stains, rips, snags, and holes.
Jeffrey was that bargain shopper who only took home discarded pieces from a clearance rack. He had a good eye for all the pretty things with stains, rips, snags, and holes.
The day Jeffrey found us, we were outside Willa’s Tavern, wedged between two dumpsters; I was five and she was twenty-one. With one hand, Mom held her cheek, split open by a knife wound that came from a petty confrontation with a drug dealer; with the other, she held onto me. A mixture of blood and tears streamed down her chin as she bellowed on the ground, and I cried too—because of her nails sinking into my wrist, and the thundering bass that seeped out from Willa’s, and the fluorescent street lamps in the parking lot, and the gravel denting my skin, and the whirlwind of confusion that stirred around us. I cried because I saw Jeffrey’s face and I saw his eyes, and he didn’t frown, and he didn’t gasp, and he didn’t speak softly, and he didn’t say much. He just ushered us into his beat-up F-150 and drove us to his house.
As we sat in Sears for our family portrait, it wasn’t just my hair reverting to its natural form that ruined the moment; it was also that white backdrop highlighting the brown of my skin, shouting that not only was I not his but I could have never been his in the first place. Transfixed against that blank canvas, I was more colorful than ever—unwillingly defying their whiteness, reminding Jeffrey we couldn’t fool the world; I was mine. And we were nothing but a quilt that came from patching up all the wrong that can exist in one place.
On the way back home, I rested my head against the window and imagined what it would be like if I reached for the steering and turned it toward the median. I could see us spinning, flipping, dying. Maybe Mom and I would make it out. We were young.
Mom looked back at me. “There’s a lighter inside my purse,” she said, with a cigarette inside her mouth.
“You’re gonna get that nasty smell all over our clothes,” I said.
She extended her hand toward me, a web of blue veins protruding from her pale white skin. I folded my arms and looked the other way. Jeffrey looked at me frowning and said, “Give your mom what she asked for.”
I handed her the lighter. She lit up her cigarette then squeezed Jeffrey’s thigh. I thought maybe that night I would slit his throat.
In the fall, I thought about killing Jeffrey almost every night. I thought about greasing the tub right before he showered. I imagined he would slip and fall, hitting the back of his head. Mom would be too high to hear a thing, and I would ignore his cry for help. I imagined I would crush one of Mom’s pills and mix it into his Cutty Sark. I imagined I would shoot him with that hunting rifle he keeps in the shed.
Over dinner, he once choked on a mouthful of chewy beef chunks. He coughed uncontrollably, spit splattering all over the place, and I felt a rush creep up inside me as his face began to turn blue. Mom ran to him. “Don’t just fucking sit there!” But I wanted to just sit there. I wanted to know if he dropped dead then and there, would Mom just be better? Could we just be better?
Though I couldn’t conjure a plan or think concretely about his death, I knew that for Mom to be free, Jeffrey needed to be gone. But instead of figuring out the details, I watched the oak out front bare itself naked, leaving our windows exposed. The leaves fell harder that fall, in indiscriminate large numbers, first imperceptibly and then not.
But instead of figuring out the details, I watched the oak out front bare itself naked, leaving our windows exposed.
Mom upgraded to heroin. Everything around us changed. She stopped getting arrested on drug charges, and people now referred to her problem as an illness, a disease, a crisis all over New Jersey. White people were shooting up. White people were smoking crack. White people were dying. Governor Christie said it was an epidemic like AIDS. I couldn’t tell the difference.
That fall we didn’t see Mom often. She would come home to fuck Jeffrey, to delude him into believing our lives could be different. She didn’t bother with me.
Jeffrey was on his third glass of Cutty Sark when he said we needed to clean out the gutters. He took the last swig and looked at me. “Better now than later,” he said.
The leaves had been accumulating since late August. Compounded by the mixture of rain and dirt, they hardened and stuck to the gutters like concrete. I grabbed the ladder from the shed and brought it toward the front of the old house like Jeffrey instructed. Though we didn’t take good care of the house, a one-story shack that had belonged to his late mother, we did just enough to keep it from falling apart. Mom never helped. It was always Jeffrey and me fixing what we could. The house sat right at the border of North Newark and Belleville, just a few yards from the projects. Nestled between Branch Brook Park and the local hospital, it was one of those few homes that managed to stay occupied by its original owner during white flight. Like its surroundings, the foundation of the house was barely keeping it together.
Inside the house, there was mildew just about everywhere, and the smell of cigarettes permeated almost every surface. When the old woman lived here, the place reeked of disease. A waft of urine, feces, and smoke would smack you right at the door. Once she passed and we moved from the basement to the first floor, not much changed. We replaced one sick old woman with a thirty-two-year-old junkie who could only stay clean for weeks at a time.
When she was clean, Mom would play up the role of wife well enough to appease Jeffrey but never long enough to fool me. She would clean and cook and shop for pretty house things—a vase here, some knick-knacks there, a plant that would die shortly after. She would hug me occasionally and even ask about my day, trying to bridge the distance that had widened between us since my birth.
Keeping Jeffrey satisfied didn’t take much, though. He was perpetually lonely, perpetually hungry, perpetually trying to anchor himself to justify his pitiful existence. He was at least twenty years her senior, an awkward and lanky white man with a speech impediment people mistook for a disability—the butt of cruel jokes about mental retardation and inbreeding.
He needed Mom to make him feel like a man, and she needed him to help her survive. She made him feel wanted the way men want to feel wanted, I guessed. With the thin Sheetrock walls that separated my room from theirs, it was impossible not to hear them have sex. The act itself consisted of Mom making exaggerated noises even I knew had to be fake, while Jeffrey grunted and moaned.
I propped the ladder against the side of the house and waited. Jeffrey walked toward me, blocking the sunlight with one hand. He then paused right in front of me and stared. His staring always had this way of making me feel naked and ashamed, as if he was examining my worth.
“We waited too long to do this,” I said.
“Well, whose fault is that?”
“Mine, I guess.”
As my luck would have it, anything that went wrong—which was everything, if you asked me—was my fault. Mom and Jeffrey never failed to remind me. He looked at me as if carefully choosing his words. I already knew the litany that would follow: a reminder about how lucky I was to live in his home, to wear clean clothes to school, to eat three meals a day, to have a family. Other girls like me—other black girls, he would say—didn’t have it so good. I could be sucking dick on the street. And he was right; things could have been much worse. It could have been me sucking his dick instead of my mother.
Jeffrey stood at the bottom of the ladder, holding it as I climbed each step. I told him I’d made sure it was steady, but he insisted on offering additional support. As I dug into the gutters with my right hand, scooping up gunk, his presence clouded the air around me. He stood just inches below my body, watching me work. I imagined him on the ladder instead. I imagined I would kick the ladder with my foot; or maybe I would let go of it right when both of his arms were reaching up; or maybe I would just push him and watch him fall on his back. Maybe at the hospital I would place a pillow over his head and watch him squirm as he struggled to breathe.
I scooped up wet leaves, and even the semblance of a dead bird long decomposed. I dumped it all onto a trash bag that sat open on a patch of grass. Jeffrey continued to watch me, unbothered by the bits of dirty water that splashed his way. He lingered like he always did, reminding me of my place in his world.
The only time Mom asked if Jeffrey had ever touched me, she paused to answer her own question. “You know what, never mind,” she said. “He doesn’t like black people.” She followed this with a chuckle and a drag of her cigarette.
“Do you like black people?” I said. “You liked my father enough to make me.” I somewhat expected her to turn away in outrage. But she didn’t. She paused and looked at me with those big green eyes that seem to apologize to everyone but me.
“I like you,” she said.
I never asked again. I wanted to say, how can you hate that which is yours? But we lived at the intersection where love and hate converged. Had we been able to choose one of the two, our lives would have been easier.
In the winter, I stopped fantasizing about Jeffrey’s death. All I could think about was potential energy; the inherent energy an object possesses based on its position relative to other objects. If it were me Mom leaned on, if she loved me instead, just how different would she be?
The more time Mom spent out of the house, the more I got to take a good look at Jeffrey. Everything he did seemed to leave a footprint of sadness: the way he stood waiting for her to come home, the way he rushed to the front door at the faintest noise, like a dog waiting for its owner. I didn’t know where we would be if he were dead. Mom, for sure, wouldn’t be free.
That winter, snow was unkind, holding us hostage every week or so. School was canceled often, so I spent a lot of time at home sitting around doing nothing. To my surprise, Jeffrey didn’t ask me to shovel as he normally would. He took on the bulk of those tasks himself, pausing every so often to catch his breath. From the window, I watched him pile snow into a mound on the front yard and pour extra salt on the walkway to make sure Mom would be safe. Once inside, he would ask about my homework, about school, about boys, about life. At times it seemed he cared.
There was no telling what would happen if Jeffrey were dead. Perhaps nothing would happen if any of us were dead. We would always be a broken vessel. With the downpour of sleet and snow, our vessel would expand and crack again. No amount of glue would ever hold us in place. We were lucky to be standing.
That same winter, Mom disappeared on us for good—a bender that outlasted all of her benders. Jeffrey would come home and ask about her with a deflated voice. The answer was still the same: she had not come home, and no one had seen her around town. She hadn’t been picked up by the police, and she hadn’t been in the hospital. Jeffrey was desperate this time, because he ventured out to the projects on his own, and in a fit of desperation cried into my arms while we ate pizza on the couch. She was nowhere to be found. Not by the light rail station or the tracks where people shot up. Not in the crackhouses of the North Ward or the South Ward or the West, for that matter.
Near the Davenport Street stop, I asked everyone in sight if they had seen the white lady with the scar on her cheek. I showed them the family photograph we had taken that summer at Sears. A woman with dreads stared at my face. “Ain’t you Desiree?” she asked. “Ain’t you Veronica’s daughter?” Her right hand was now grabbing my shoulder. She told me I looked like my mother, and that was the first time I’d heard anyone say such a thing. It was also the first time I’d heard someone say my mother talked about me. Before I left for the next bus stop, the woman told me that she too had been wondering about my mom. No one had seen her in weeks.
At night, Jeffrey cried himself to sleep. He made howling noises and gasped for air. He sounded like he was dying, and I began to fear his heart would give out.
Right before Christmas break, he picked me up from school. To my surprise, he wanted to talk to one of my teachers. I watched him enter the building. He almost looked like someone else, or like another version of himself. He wore his Levi jeans, but his flannel shirt was tucked in, and a brown belt that matched his boots. His hair was neatly combed to the side.
He smiled and tapped my shoulder. “So where are you taking me?”
On the way to my science classroom, he tripped near the edge of the stairs. My heart jumped at the thought of his body rolling down the steps, his fragile head hitting the concrete.
“Holy shit!” I screamed, holding on to him. I pulled him up and embraced him. “Thank God,” I said.
He looked at me and laughed. “You saved my life there.”
Inside the classroom, Jeffrey extended his hand to Ms. Masini. “I’m Desiree’s stepdad.” I looked at him, noticing the soft smile lines at the corners of his mouth. Then I looked at Ms. Masini’s face, wondering what she was thinking. In over two years of high school, I had never brought in anyone from home. No one ever showed up to a conference. No one ever picked up a report card, or even looked at it.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” she said.
They talked about my grades and my potential. Every so often Jeffrey would look back at me, his eyes pleading for something.
In the car, he played jazz. His fingers tapped the steering wheel gently. He looped around the park, taking the longest possible route and stopping whenever he saw a crowd of people gathering. I knew that he would never stop looking for her. I also knew that love was a complicated thing to define. From the looks of it, Jeffrey loved my mother, but I couldn’t help but wonder who exactly he loved. I tried to make peace with the notion that there was a different woman somewhere in there, a woman worthy of love, but she wasn’t the mother I knew. Like Jeffrey, I was also waiting for her to come home.
I had been waiting all my life.