Umma speaks in tongues
Sings hymnals in the kitchen
Washing the dishes 5 times a day
Drowning in what she cannot understand
Umma, tell me before you forget
What life was like before all of this
All of him, all of me, all of us
Why you cry in the morning
But laugh in your dreams
I still remember that time you held me
On the floor of our one bedroom
The spiders stared and spun love into webs after you
Modeled their lives around you
When you lost your delicate finger,
Your love drew the blood
Go away, you whispered
Crying still, like a corpse, in bed
The air so thick, I had to claw my way out
You gave me these hands
That always find their way through the keys
You gave me this voice that shakes my soul
You gave me these tears and now I am learning how to swim
Trying to stay afloat
I let the waves flood out the painful silence
Waiting for you to come back
Please sing me the lullaby of why you left
How I wish you could have stayed
Away from all of this, all of us, all of him
There is scar that runs up my thigh that is slowly fading. But what remains is a small, black piece of metal, lodged into my skin forever.
Obbah and I grew up in Jamaica. (And I have since found it useful to specify that I am referring to the neighborhood in Queens, NY, not the Caribbean.) We lived in a small one-bedroom apartment right along the J train on top of a family market run by Koreans. When Umma took her time picking out the best of whatever she needed, they would sometimes give me free candy. And only the best kind – Hubba Bubba and Chupa Chups. We were sandwiched in between the market and a pizzeria. On the good days, I would run downstairs and ask the man in the window for an Ice. Chocolate chip. Rainbow. Lemon. Tangerine. We would sit inside, and Umma would cut my slice into slices. Fork and knife, like a fine steak.
I’d figure Umma did things like that because she felt sorry or wanted to compensate for all the things she couldn’t do for me. On the weekends when my parents went off to work, Obbah and I would climb out our window to play on the rooftop, our backyard. We would take turns climbing the fence leaned against the building next to us, using the wires that ran along the brick wall as rope to pull ourselves up. We would sit on the edge of the building and watch the trains go by until sunset. If Umma were to find out, we would surely get in trouble.
One day I challenged Obbah to a race. Our feet scurried to the fence, and we both started climbing and grabbing anything we could. Side by side, I was sure I would win. But Obbah, in his competitive streak, yanked the wire from my hands and I fell. Like Mufasa in the battle of the stampede and Obbah, the wicked Scar. The sharp arrows of the fence cut a gash up my thigh. I must have fell unconscious and dreamed that Obbah poured Clorox over my cut to disinfect my wound, but today he denies my allegations and claims I would be dead if they were true.
Two Floored Home
The entrance of our apartment was covered with green carpet, spotted with stains, that would burn my knees every time I collapsed on the floor after a day at school. The rest was covered in linoleum – diamonds connecting the corners of each tile. Every once in a while, our bathroom door managed to lock itself, and my mother would take our biggest knife to pry it open. I would run away at the sight of my mother violently stabbing the doorknob until the lock finally caved.
Behind our sofa, Obbah and I shared bunk beds pressed up against the corner of our living room. Every night I would tumble into bed by entering through the small crack between the couch and Obbah’s top bunk. And every morning I would climb my way back out. I can't remember if it came with a sense of adventure or dread, but that was the way things were and the only way I knew. Saturday play consisted of building forts out of sofa cushions, playing hopscotch on the tiles, climbing bookshelves, and animating stuffed animals.
Life in that home was lonely. Obbah would take the golden bus to a better school that had no space for me, and I would take my tiny, tired feet up to the school two blocks away. Obbah’s school had special afterschool programs for students whose parents worked late. While he drew sharks and Pokémon, the same strange woman would pick me up and drop me off at our apartment. Silence would echo through the hollow space that only I inhabited until Obbah came back from school. I would pass the time and fill the emptiness with imaginary people, having imaginary conversations, enjoying their imaginary company.
The phone rang and I ran to answer it. I needed a real voice to have a real conversation – one that would break my reverie. It was the principal asking to speak to Umma or Abba. I said, “They’re not home… No, nobody’s home.” Soon after, a violent knock shook my knees. It was the police and I knew I shouldn’t answer. I walked to the green carpet and stood on top of a chair. I feared they might get down on their knees and peek through the crack of the door to look for feet. Once Umma and Abba got home, they yelled at me for answering the phone, though they had repeatedly told me not to. But whom else was I going to talk to?
Wandering and weaving myself through different worlds, I did not know where I was going half the time. After recess, Ms. Nicoletta would shut off the lights and everyone would put their heads down. I would stare at my shoes dangling in the air and listen to the air conditioning hum loudly in my ear. One day, I started to silently weep. Ms. Nicoletta said, “Yon Mi, Yon Mi, wake up.” Embarrassed by the pool of tears that had formed on my desk and the red that flushed my face, I kept my head down for as long as I could. Everyone, including myself, clueless as to why I was so sad.
I scared Umma, who thought she was the one to blame. She pleaded with Abba to send me to a daycare – where the entrance was paved in hardwood and there was a staircase leading up to a second floor. I would sit awkwardly at the dining room table. Children did homework and adults changed diapers. Everyone opened gifts at Christmas time and I wondered why I didn’t receive anything from Santa Claus. Was I naughty? Maybe it was because we didn’t have a tree. Mom picked me up one day and in her broken English shouted, “Too expensive! Please!” I stood by her side while they bickered back and forth; we never went back again.
What is imprinted along our DNA? In a study using mice, scientists exposed the test subjects to the smell of fruit followed by an electrical shock. The mice quickly learned to fear the smell, which after all helps species survive. The study later showed that their offspring also feared the smell of fruit but were never shocked. So, when Umma and Abba tell me how they were separated from their families because of the division of Korea, how do I walk in the world as the manifestation of their trauma? How they desperately wanted a better life for me and Obbah – a life they could barely afford. How do I stress the gaping laceration of their pain cut anew onto my skin? How do I begin to explain something that has no words but is a feeling, a knowing, an understanding of a truth that cannot be spoken? The numbing, the suppression for years and decades.