Resigned to the saccharine recesses of my memory, I sigh. It has been 68 years, yet it all remains so tangible. My youth; where everything was known, but nothing understood. That was where I found her. Now, with my face ornate with wrinkles, hair gray, bones so feeble and unwilling so as to suggest straw, I am somehow made a girl again by the wholeness of that time living in my mind in perpetuity. It exists unobscured through the unforgiving channel of time, in spite of its design to obnubilate details into susurrations.
It was 1953. The Korean War had just ended. I wait. By the windowsill, I gaze off into oblivion. Watching what? My itinerant eyes focus on the yellow taxi cab nearing the front steps of the building. It’s him. I bristle and run out of the apartment. Rillie, relax, Mama says, with a tone managing to, at once, scold and laugh at me. Sprinting through the doors, down the front steps, and into his arms, I greet my brother with an embrace expressing all my elation.
Mama followed out the building’s front door wiping her hands into a grey dish rag, smiling, watching us.
Mama, Franklin, and myself had lived in that same apartment on the first floor in Harlem for as long as I’d known—I still remember; 1517 Hayford Boulevard. I was born Cheryl Louise Mayson in 1935, a name my family ignored for Rillie. My papa died during WWII, when I was only 7 and Frankie was 12. He knows more of him than the loose vignettes I’ve retained. Though he had passed, I wouldn’t reduce my childhood to a tragedy. I was a contented child, for the most part, when I wasn’t alone. I always had a gray patch of hair by my right temple since I was born. Mama said it was a birthmark—a birthmark that would prove to later, very surreptitiously, engulf my entire head in old age. I was very awkward, care of being so insecure, insecure in only the way teenage girls can be—to say nothing of little poor dark girls with hair that was seldom cooperative with any style of the times—as a consequence of how much pressure is exacted upon them.
“Oh this girl done got big on us!”
“Oh, be quiet!”
“Ma, look at Rillie, so tall and… happening!”
“Frankie,” Mama said, wearing a warm, beaming smile as she advanced down the front steps.
“Mama!” Frankie exclaimed, Mama meeting his arms in an embrace that lifted her off of her feet.
With tears being produced from her eyes, Mama motions for us all to get inside.
“Let’s settle down, now. All this…you must be tired Frankie”
“Not as much as you’d think! Got a good rest on the way here.”
We arrived inside of the apartment after what passersby on the street may have looked at as a rather cacophonic address.
Following him around on what seemed like a discovery of his own home, Mama and I followed his eyes and his every step through the apartment. Watching the smile dawn on his face as he worked through the rooms, we too, began to smile.
“Funny how everything looks the same but so different,” Frankie smiled fondly. Peaking in each room until arriving at the room we shared in our youth, now completely assumed by myself. Letting out a stifled chuckle, he mocked me, “You took down the partition?”
My face grew into an even bigger smile until we all erupted into laughter.
“Sis, bet you couldn’t wait for that to happen! I mean, wow, a brother goes off to war 3 years and lo! Woman conquers! Bet you did that soon as I left!”
We grew into inconsolable tearing laughter, until we finally quieted. Frankie and I sat at the edge of my bed, with Mama standing in the doorway, looking on.
“You know it’s funny but it’s a real sign, you know? My lil’ sis ain’t so little no more! You’re 18 now?”
“Man, that’s right!”
“Libra and a Gem’,” he said in a cadence, starting our childhood rhyme with each other, as I chimed in,
“…Now you know you in trouble. Two Mayson kids, don’t flip your lid, we’ll burst your bubble. Libra and a Gem, double trouble!”
The nostalgia inspired a guffaw that practically split our sides. Frankie looked at me shaking his head with a smirk.”
“Rillie, on the level now, you’re all grown up…come down to Coconut Grove with me. You old enough, you can’t be my baby sis’ forever”
“You used to hound me down every time I’d harangue you about letting me come with you!”
“Yeah when you was still in junior high, wearing barrettes, trying to come in grown folk business!”
We started laughing.
“Come down with me tomorrow night, we’ll have a groovy time.”
Fresh off a war and ready to party. Ol’ Frankie.
The next night I produced a yellow polyester pencil skirt out of the dredges of Mama’s closet, and completed the outfit with a navy blue polo short sleeve shirt, black flats, and my hair in a low bun.
“Oh baby, you’re a dime.” Mama said, getting teary.
Teasing me with a wolf whistle, Frankie took my elbow and we started out of the apartment, on our way north of Harlem by a yellow taxi he’d summoned.
“Don’t come back at no ungodly hour of the morning now!”
Upon entering, it somehow managed to be more than I imagined. I will always remember that feeling, what I came to call the atmosphere of the place. The colors moving kaleidoscopically before one’s eyes, women flaunting flaring skirts being thrown in the air five feet high, shaking tail feathers in sheath dresses; men flaunting their arms in short sleeve shirts or displaying their chest in button downs either halfway open bearing their chest or fully open bearing nothing but a white vest underneath. A band blaring Hound Dog added to the scene’s ornamented air.
Off in the corner, handsomely smoking, there she was. A feeling occurred in me that I still fail to apply a definition to. I was simply unable to temper my staring. She conjured the image of a Mustang or Thoroughbred; a beauty that defied isolated ideals.
She walked towards me, a wave of terror encroached me, then ebbed when she finally said, “Take a picture, it lasts longer,” in a tone more inviting than chiding.
“Oh, my apologies, I just…I’m sorry.”
She looked confusingly at me, then at Frankie next to me, “The kid always this eloquent?” She asked laughing.
“This her first time here, she doesn’t get out much often, forgive her.”
To break the ice, I suspect, she formally introduced herself.
“Gertrude Sidney Abrahamson.”
A remarkable visage with such a comical name: Gertrude Sidney Abrahamson. A name with the allure of damp socks or wet newspaper. One that deposits onto the ears with the appeal of audible chewing. When she told me her full name, it inspired the urge to apologize.
I let out a laugh against my will.
“Have I amused you?” she remarked icily, making me panic rather awkwardly. She smirked so as to indicate she was only putting me on. “Relax baby! Cool it!”
Frankie left me to my own devices with this stranger who’s irony beset me.
Before she coerced me into dancing with her in a spasm lacking all inhibition, we had a long conversation. I hardly recall anyone talking like that in my life. Her ideas were unlike anything my sheltered ears had ever heard.
Recognizing how her parents smote her, she told me she went by Gerry. I knew Gerry only to be a man’s name. I had a cousin named Gerry. The way she held herself, at once feminine and masculine, created a genderless manifestation my eyes could not abandon.
The night ended.
I was terrified. Terrified, not only of what I felt but of what it meant, of what others would say. Mama, Frankie?
Two weeks later, Mama died in a car crash.
Frankie sat me down in the living room the same week.
In a solemnity that silenced the air and produced an uneasiness that winnowed my insides, he very succinctly told me,
“Mama isn’t here anymore. That woman wasn’t but 50…Life is too short. Go get the girl.”
Life is too short. Go get the girl.
I spent nearly 50 years with that woman, up until her death sixteen years ago.
Now, in the maelstrom of my mind, I sigh. Frankie gone, Mama gone, Gerry gone. Alas, such is life. Dexterously deveining shrimp from a bowl, slitting along its side, extracting a vein with the deftness of a surgeon, I gaze out the window. Grateful for my past, I mourn it. Meandering my hand through the bowl of deveined shrimp before me, I think of Gertrude Sidney Abrahamson and begin chuckling. At least I got the girl.