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He used to go to the park with me. He used to push me on the swings. He was the air my legs pumped against. He was the feeling of flying off a swing and letting go – just letting it all go. He ran with me through the fields and held his breath with me under the water. He splashed with me in the rain, he searched with me for buried treasure, he helped me climb trees and then helped me down. He came to the door if I knocked. He listened when I talked. I was young, and he was never out of my little arms' reach.
He taught me multiplication and division on the sidewalk. His chalky hands moved slowly for me, his fifth-grade math seeming so much more exciting than my third-grade addition.
He helped me find the courage to make friends in my new town. I remember him telling me that spiders were more scared of me than I was of them, and most of the time people were the same way. He helped me find the beauty in the scariest things, the scariest situations, and the scariest people. He helped me bury the early fractions of myself. He was missing, and I couldn't make myself remember why.
I didn't try to remember for a long time. But I must have known something wasn't right. When I finally faced it, it was only the sound. But something in me knew there was so much more to be found.
It was so ugly. I could remember thinking that. Three years went by, yet I could only think about that. It was like I couldn't see the rest. I tried and tried, but my brain was a small, unripened fruit, nothing left to squeeze out, too young to face the truth. I was 11 years old, and I could not face the truth.
I saw my godmother, the woman I'm named after, for the first time in six years, when I was 14. I saw her beautiful dark skin and her long braided hair. Her memory should have come with all the times she gave me kiwis for watering her flowers, all the times she taught me how to paint, all the times she taught me how to sew, or spell, or sing, or dance, or tell a good joke. But when I saw her smiling face, I couldn't help but look past her, seeing something else.
I saw her run past her white front door, her eyes brimming with disbelief and anger. She approached me for a hug, yet I saw her run toward something that lay in front of her home: her biggest fear. I tried to see where she was running, but my memory couldn't take me past her frightened eyes, her quick steps, her pink dress, and her front lawn. Then – a rush back to reality and into her kind embrace.
It really began to bother me after that day. I have been gifted with a terrible memory – that's what I used to tell myself. I forget dates, names, assignments, faces, and fond memories, along with pain, hate, grudges, fears, and fights. But I don't forget sounds. I never forget a song. Even when I lose a face, I never forget the voice. It occurred to me that maybe I wasn't born with a poor memory. Maybe I developed one.
I was in Missouri when the smell hit me, the smell of a hot summer's day: leather seats and sweat. The smell was eight years old, hiding in the back of my mind. I looked around me. People were smiling and laughing; they were hot but happy. The smell in my memory was of food on the barbecues, juice by the gallon, corn and chicken and mashed potatoes and casseroles. Our block was blocked off, and everyone within a mile had come with food and family and friends.
We filled half the street, and all the parked cars played the same radio station. Not everyone had a job. But we had each other. We helped each other. We fed each other. We were one huge family. And my huge family filled half a street. The soul music played, the dark women sang, the dark men barbecued, and the dark children played. I was not their color, but they accepted me and my family for our character, and it was just such a beautiful day.
My mind rushed back to the present. Eight years later, and here I was. The Missouri sun was high and hot. No one else smelled what I had smelled. I looked around, and my eyes paused on the beach. Tall white girls and boys played volleyball. Men wore fancy glasses and watches, and a booming radio played soft rock. They ate food not unlike the food in my memory; they laughed and sang and drank together. I remembered how happy I was in the past, and my mind tried to go back. But my cousin asked me to join his team for volleyball, and I remembered that I was just as happy here. My mind was someplace else, but I nodded and tried to stand. In that moment, the past and the present collided. Everything grew fuzzy and I fell in a faint, breaking through the green grass like it was ice, drowning, so cold, in a warm scent's memory.
When I was only a few months past 17, someone asked me where I grew up. I automatically responded, “Hoffman Estates,” and then it occurred to me that this wasn't true. There had been another house, another town, another society, another time. It hurt to think about, and I couldn't picture it as a whole. I could remember my bed: a small, pink-framed thing. I started remembering the floor, and that's when my head began to pound. There was something I couldn't see, something I wouldn't let myself see.
I was sitting at my desk in English class. I read the bold black letters against that harsh white background. I shouldn't say I read them. Rather I stared at them. I saw my godmother's dark eyes. I saw the pavement, and I knew what piece I had been missing – the feeling.
It hit me and it hit me hard. It didn't take its time; it hit me all at once. I saw the black letters on my phone. I saw the black T-shirt as it became damp with blood. I heard all of the sound and none of it at the same time. And I heard someone whisper, “Oh my god,” over and over. The sound felt so far away. Then it got louder and louder. Then it was blocked out by sobs, and then it was followed by lack of breath and worried looks and the sound of a purse falling and everything spilling out. Everything had just spilled out right in front of me. I realized that the words had been coming from me. I realized that I was the one stumbling and falling and trying to leave the room, the classroom that grew smaller and smaller against the realization I had just had.
He just lay there. His face was purple. His hat was blue. He was motionless, like the beautiful flowers surrounding him. His earrings were sparkling in the lights, like his eyes used to. Every time I looked at his still face, I cried. Every hug his mother gave to every person who walked through that church, I cried.
I remembered the people and the anger and the tears. I remembered the people who drove through the homemade wooden barrier. I remembered the screams of men and women and children. I remembered the black guns, and I remembered my best friend, Tre, pushing me out of the way. I remembered looking for my little brother, who is deaf. I remembered my godmother running through her white door, across the summer's green grass, in her long pink dress.
I remembered fear and faces and voices and wheels screeching. I remembered the bullet that flew right past me; I remembered watching them speed down the empty half of the street. I heard the police sirens, but no matter how hard I looked, I never saw their faces, and then they disappeared.
I looked around and my neighbors, my huge family, were holding wounded arms, legs, children, and pets. I couldn't see anything more. I didn't even see Tre lying there, struck down by a bullet that could have hit me. I couldn't see his black shirt soaked in red, I couldn't see the tears or the faces or the ambulances. I just heard them.
I heard everything. I heard the heat, I heard the pain, and I heard the anger. I heard the sounds of a scared young girl in shock, as silent and unemotional as a stone.
It all went black for her, and she woke up 10 years later and 100 miles away, on the opposite side of Chicago, in the arms of different friends, crying her heart out, wanting nothing more than to hug her first friend, Tre, one more time.