"Again," he barks. "Bob and weave, don't get back on your heels. And keep your fucking hands up."
I grit my teeth and nod. Kickboxing was never on Dr. Kaplan's radar. His pills, his sessions, they were all about letting go of the anger that consumed me. Kickboxing is about focusing that rage. And each time I make contact with the bag, I focus it into a tighter, and tighter ball.
Jab, cross, knee, "Fuck!" I explode as Gray knocks me from the left.
"Keep your damn hands up!"
"They are up!" I shout back.
"Yeah? Then how come I can do this?" He socks me in the right ear, and I hear ringing.
"Dammit!" I jab the mitts three times in quick succession, backing him up on his heels, but he knocks the back of my head with a quick dart.
"Duck before I punch you! Watch my eyes!" He advances quickly, forcing me to duck and shield my face as he rains blows about my ears, I am backing up, again and again, trying to get out from under his assault, when suddenly my heel catches on something.
He has me in the corner.
"Hands up!" he shouts. There isn't any way I can get out of this. He has me trapped and no centering or deep breathing is going to get me out. I am literally backed in a fucking corn
er, the perfect fucking metaphor for the life I've led for the past two years. I'm done, I can't live this way any more. I am done.
"They are up!" I roar, surging forward. Gray's face changes from irritation to focus as I fly at him, the fury of my jabs too quick for him to take in. I have him back on his heels with two cross-kicks in quick succession. Each time my fist slams into the bags, I hear a grunt and realize it's not me, it's him, staggering backwards again and again until his foot slides off the floor mat and he is on the ground and I am over him with my anger focused so tightly that I could kill him right now.
Except I don't, of course. Instead I reach out my hand. Gray clasps my forearm and I lift him easily.
"Nice work," he pants. "Think you're finally going to remember to keep your hands up?"
"Yeah," I pant. "Not going to be backed into a corner...ever again." My own words hang in the air for a second. "Can we take five, Gray? I need to make a phone call."
I am still in my sweaty, stinking workout clothes as I race out onto the deck. The phone rings so long I am sure it's going to go to voicemail, but at the last moment, I hear her sad voice as she answers the phone. "Carter."
"Sanniyah," I am still out of breath, but I don't think it's from the workout anymore. "Listen, don't say anything, okay? I know it's been a few weeks, I know I don't deserve to just call you up out of the blue like this, but I need to see you. Just tell me where you are. I'm coming to you, okay? Do you hear me? I don't care where you are. I'm ready. I am coming to you."
"Carter..." her voice is so heavy that I can feel myself shaking my head no, no, no even before she continues. "Carter, this is not a good time."
"Sanniyah. "My anger is a tight ball in my chest. I close my fists and feel, for the first time, the space that has been created now that the anger doesn't fill me completely. There is space for so much more. Passion, friendship...love. "You know I'm not a planner, I don't wait for the right time...."
She interrupts me with a short, barking laugh. "No, I mean that literally. Now is not a good time." She heaves a hitching sigh. "I'm on my way to my father's funeral."
I hang up the phone and wait to feel sad. But there is nothing left to feel. I have cried too many tears. I almost loved him, but then I lost him and now I have to be with my mother.
"Sorry about that, Mama," I say, taking her by the elbow. I hold her tightly all the way down the steps of the house on the corner, and when we reach the waiting cab, I can barely bring myself to let her go long enough to get into the seat myself.
I am a planner. It's what I do. But Otis already had everything planned: the funeral, the casket, the flowers, right down to the music he wanted the choir to sing. Otis did all the planning to make sure that my mother and I wouldn't need to lift a finger.
Except he didn't leave me with anything I could do to feel better. The minutes are ticking by as I ride with my mother to the church, empty and hollow like the place where my heart used to be.
My mother takes a deep breath as we pull up at a stoplight in sight of the church. I reach over and grip her hand, covering it with mine. Our hands are so alike, the same shade of caramel, the same long fingers. Her nails look bitten and ragged, but then again, so do mine.
She squeezes my hand as she looks up at me. Her wedding ring bites into my fingers as she clutches me hard, but I don't mind. It gives me something to feel other than loss.
"You remember that night at St. Ambrose House, baby? That time I didn't come home?"
I startle slightly. "Of course, mama." My mother doesn't talk about our time in the shelter, not ever. This the first time she has mentioned it to me in years. The cab rolls forward and she turns to look out the window. I can barely hear her voice with her turned away from me like this, and I have to strain to listen as the torrent of words pours out of her.
"I was working, where was that? The temp job way the hell out in the suburbs? I had to take three different busses to get there."
"I remember," I say softly. I would sit up, yawning, waiting for her to get back before I could bring myself to sleep.
"The second bus never came that night. I told you this. It just plain never showed up. The other people, they were calling friends and relatives, but I didn't have none of that, so I had to start walking. By the time I got home, I had broken curfew by five hours and you were fast asleep."
"You didn't have a late pass."
"No," she shakes her head as we pull up in front of the church, but she makes no move to get out. Silently, I shake my head at the cabbie and nod at the meter. She isn't ready to get out yet. Not yet. "I had to meet with the Night Screening Staff at the temporary shelter."
"Otis," I smile.
"It was the worst day and the best day of my life." Her smile is soft and faraway. "The shame of it, having to explain why I was late to a man who I had never met...a volunteer even, not even someone who was paid to deal with my bullshit, but someone who had the time and money to think all of this was fun. I was pissed, honey, more pissed than I had ever been in my life. They were going to kick me out of the shelter, pack up all our belongings and just throw us out on the street and here I had to talk to this old man who kept nodding his head at me like he knew my story. Like it was something he could understand. I was all sweaty and stinky and yelling about my girl being kicked out on the street, and here this man, this volunteer, just listens to me. Before long, he had me telling him things...." Her voice softens at the memory. "For the first time, I get to have someone actually hear my story from start to finish." She inhales haltingly. "And then he let me cry. And he put his hand on my hand, like you're doing now, and I cried even harder. Then he stood up and let me cry on his shoulder. He smelled like Jergens and Lemon Pledge, I'll never forget it."
"He is, was, the best," I say, tears gathering in my eyes.
She shifts and turns to me, clasping both of my hands in hers. Her gaze is like wildfire. "I'll never be ashamed for leaving your father the way we did. Up and running in the night. We had to. One or both of us was going to die." I swallow all the harder to hear her talk about the man, the first man, who I had called Dad. He stalked my nightmares like a dark shadow and we rarely talked about him for fear of bringing the nightmare to life. "We didn't have anything but the clothes on our backs. I know that. It was tough for you, and no, I never had a plan for us, what we were going to do once we ran. I know you always hated that about me."
I start to stammer but she shushes me with a look. "No, I didn't have a plan for us, but life shows us what needs to happen. That night when I broke curfew, I met my Otis, your real dad. Doors shut in life and then other ones open. And that door opened and gave me Otis, the great love of my life. I would have missed him if things had gone like they were supposed to that night."
"I know, Mama." And I do. I really do. I take her hand in one of mine and with the other I pay the cabbie handsomely. When she nods that she is ready, I help her out of the back seat and hold her tightly as we walk into her husband's funeral.
It is a hot, muggy morning, the threat of thunderstorms hanging heavily in the air. I feel like I can't draw a full breath. And the heat inside the church is even worse. Everyone is already fanning themselves with the programs before the service even begins. Tricia and Rita give me small, sad waves from the back of the church as I pass and I feel my heart swell slightly to see their familiar faces in the sea of unfamiliar ones.
Speaker after speaker comes up to extol Otis's virtues. I hear stories I never heard before, and very little of what I hear jibes with the memory of the straight-backed old man who shadowed my mother like a guardian angel. The strangeness is starting to get to me, the unreality of this all. I try to keep my focus on the words being said but I keep feeling like I'm just going to float away. The finality of their words, the quiet sobs behind me, the oppressive heat of the church, it's all starting to make me feel faint.
When we are finally given leave to rise, my knees wobble a
little and I have to sit back down heavily. No one notices. My mother is now in the arms of Mrs. Parker and her birthmark, being clucked over by all the church ladies who had told her to keep fighting, keep pushing Otis for more treatment, more intervention, more fighting. They are mouthing platitudes about him getting rest with God now, and suddenly I am just angry.
"Yahya, honey, come with us, okay?" Tricia is over me in an instant. "You need some space."
I am shaking even harder. "I need to be with my Mom," I tell her through tightly gritted teeth.
"Your mother is fine, everyone is looking out for her. Let me look out for you."
I am about to argue, and then I shake my head. "Tricia, I feel like I want to lie down and sleep forever."