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I’m sorry that I couldn’t love you. Had I been normal things might have turned out differently. We could have been friends at least. I would have taken you to Okinawa where I was born. You would have liked it there. What I remember most are the stars lighting up the sky like a melody. I was a child of war. A hafu. That’s what they called us, the spoils nobody wanted. I’m not saying this for sympathy or to excuse what I’ve done it’s just a fact. A fact like I’m forty-one years old. A fact like I live in New York and work for a lifestyle magazine. These facts mean nothing to you I know. Facts are good but they never tell the whole story. The truth is, I had to leave you. There was no other choice. By now you must realize that it was for the best. Something long ago had darkened my mind. It turned my soul into a wave of sorrow, deep and unrelenting. I didn’t want to break you. It was enough that I had already been broken.
Miho put the letter in the side pocket of her tactical jacket. She didn’t feel any better having written it, maybe she felt even worse. It had taken hours to come up with the right words. She wanted words that would unearth the core that she’d kept buried for so long. The kind of words she would never say out loud for fear of getting them wrong. She had no plans of reading the letter at today’s meeting or any other one. It was nobody’s business, certainly not the strangers she was required to see once a month.
She crossed Avenue B and arrived early at the brownstone that had been converted into a supportive housing facility. The upper floors had rooms for people who were chemically addicted or mentally ill. The parlor floor was used for workshops on life skills and recovery. She chose this facility because it was the closest to her apartment on the Lower East Side. She signed in on the clipboard then took a seat in the circle of empty chairs. The walls were dingy and looked as though they had been painted over hundreds of times. The residents’ artwork, mostly watercolors, were taped in a line across one wall. She took off her jacket and placed it on the back of the plastic chair, then tied back her wiry hair and waited.
Taking part in recovery was the only way to keep her job after being found unconscious in a hotel room. She and her coworkers had gone out drinking at a bar off the Santa Monica pier after a shoot. The art director was setting tequila shots on fire with a gold embossed lighter and passing them around. When the editor came to her room later that night he found her. She miscalculated how much she could drink on top of the sedatives. There was also the factor of jetlag after the flight from New York to Los Angeles but nobody in Human Resources cared about that. “Why you didn’t put me in shower? Why you didn’t put me in shower!” she kept yelling at the editor in the ambulance. He just stared out the window and said nothing. She regretted giving him the room key. He grew up going to private schools and his parents still lived in the same house where he was born. This was the scariest thing that had ever happened to him. “Don’t call me anymore,” she said.
The circle began to fill up. Miho avoided looking any of the addicts in the eye. She was bad with names and identified most of them by their voices and the shoes they wore. Rakim, the only name she could remember, sat next to her. He had a past that no one outside of this room would believe. Sometimes she felt herself wanting to laugh even though nothing he said was funny. The guy on the opposite side of her was an ex-marine who served in Iraq. He had black eyes and dark wavy hair. Sometimes when she looked up from the floor, his eyes would be on her. He was too crazy for any woman to take seriously. The counselor, Mary Ellen, was the last to enter the room. She wore conservative clothing and had wispy hair and slightly pockmarked skin. She never shared anything about her life, like where she grew up, if she had kids, or even what borough she lived in. Mary Ellen looked around the room and smiled at everyone.
“Who would like to start?” she said.
No one answered.
“How about you, Tony?”
Tony was the counselor’s favorite. He called himself the invisible minority because he was Latino but looked like a young Johnny Depp. He blew out a puff of air, then chuckled.
“Nada,” he said, slouching in his chair. “I got naaa—ting. I was busy and shit you know. My boss was like, ‘This is your last warning Antonio,’” he said, wagging his finger, then laughed.
His eyes were glossed over and he began humming to himself. The others in the group looked at the counselor to see if she was going to do anything. Instead of addressing it, she turned to the other side of the circle.
“How about you, Miho. Would you like to share something with us.”
“No,” Miho said, shaking her head. “I don’t want to share.”
“Mmm,” Mary Ellen said. “I get the sense that you prefer to keep things inside. How is that working for you?” She spoke slowly in full sentences that felt unnatural. “Part of the healing process is for the recipient to hear your words. Do you plan on sending the letter?”
“I don’t know where he is,” Miho said.
“Look him up on Facebook,” guy with the red sneakers said.
“I won’t find him.”
“You never know,” guy with the white sneakers said. “I found this girl I used to go out with thirty years ago. I messaged her but she didn’t answer me back.”
“That’s fucked,” someone said.
“Naw, it’s cool. She ain’t hot no more anyways.”
“What about you Rakim?” Mary Ellen said. “Would you like to share your experience with the group?”
Rakim looked around the room. He wore loose-fitting clothing and his face had deep creases around the mouth and forehead.
“Fuck America,” he said. “And fuck this group too. A cracker goes into a church, shoots up Black folk, and we all sittin’ around here like nothing happened!”
Everyone kept their eyes on the floor when he spoke.
“I’m tired of this shit! Everybody think just ’cause we got a Black president ain’t no more racism. Look at what happened! Why ain’t we talkin’ ’bout that?”
Miho looked at the wall clock. They were only ten minutes into an hour-long session.
“What happened in South Carolina was terrible,” Mary Ellen said. “But I don’t want to lose sight of the work that has to be done in our own lives.”
“That’s the whole point!” Rakim said. “This is my life. What happened at that church does affect me. That’s what you don’t get. White people can never understand that.”
For the remaining time, they talked about the mass shooting in Charleston and how the cops took the murderer out for hamburgers after arresting him. It put Mary Ellen in the hot seat for a change. She was uncomfortable talking about race or even saying the word “Black”. And she hadn’t acknowledged in any meaningful way the impact that racism had on the daily lives of the people she was supposed to be helping. Rakim was the elder of the group so no one was going to mess with what he said. He knew a lot about history and wasn’t afraid to express his point of view. Had he grown up with a better support system, he’d be a lawyer in a courtroom somewhere instead of a guy in a room full of addicts.
After the session ended, Miho was the first out the door. She never hung around for small talk. She walked toward Houston Street passing a block party where a full pig was being roasted. There was merengue music and two pretty young women came toward her with their hair flowing and faces all made up. One of the women was wearing a see-through off-the-shoulder tank top. It cut across her chest so low that one of her pink nipples was completely exposed. Miho couldn’t keep up with this generation. Perhaps if she had an ultra-femme figure she would dress differently. But what she got was broad shoulders and square hips that paired well with the militant gear she wore. She moved briskly, turning onto Houston, weaving through a group of tourists and old people waiting for the bus. It was too hot to wear her jacket, so she took it off and tied it around her waist. She brought it for the movie theater that always kept the air-conditioning blasting on high. There was a new film at the Sunshine that started in half an hour. She didn’t know what it was about and didn’t care. For her, the movies were a place to go and forget her problems. The lace on her boot had come undone and was flapping around so she went to the side of a building and stopped to tie it.
“You walk fast,” a voice said.
She recognized it and looked up at the marine.
“Don’t worry, I’m not stalking you,” he said. “You dropped this.”
He handed her a folded piece of paper. It was the letter she had written; it must have fallen out of her jacket. She took it from him and put it in the back pocket of her jeans.
“Thanks,” she said, hoping he hadn’t read it.
“Where you going?”
“Nowhere,” she said.
“That shit was wild,” he said. “Did you see the look on her face when Rakim started going off?”
“Yeah, she look scared.”
“When he said, ‘Fuck recovery!’ I almost lost it.”
“I know. That’s white people stuff,” Miho said, and they laughed.
“You wanna get a burger or something?” he said.
She could feel the heat coming off his body. She couldn’t tell if he was Puerto Rican or Mexican. It was hard to tell with mestizos. He had to be younger than her by at least ten years. A couple was ordering from the falafel truck next to them. She was tired of eating alone.
“Don’t tell me you’re vegan,” he said.
“No, I’m not.”
“So what’s up?” he said in a low voice. “Are you hungry or not?”
They went to a diner and sat at a booth near the window. The decor was old school with lots of wood trim and green pleather seats with fissures like the veins on her grandmother’s legs. Miho would rub her legs to get the circulation going, the air between them smelling of Bengay. It had been over twenty years since her passing and even longer for her mother, who had all but vanished from her memory. Sometimes she could hear her mother, not her voice per se but words she used and the way she called her to come in for lunch, Mi-chan, Mi-chan. She could see her mother’s hand reaching out to hold her own but never her face. Her eyes, hair, and mouth were a blur and would have been nonexistent if not for a tiny black-and-white photograph, the only one she had of her mother.
“You see this,” the marine said. He had taken a straw from the dispenser and folded it into an angular shape. “I could kill someone with this.” He made a jabbing motion.
Miho crossed her arms. “Yeah OK.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Why you say things like that? People might think you crazy.”
“Maybe I am.”
“You keep talking like that and you never get a job.”
“Why is everyone on me about that? I served my country and did more than most people will ever do.”
He was wearing a tactical jacket that she saw on the same website she ordered her jacket from. A stocky waiter with black spiky hair came to the table and set down two plastic glasses filled with water. The marine ordered a burger and Miho a BLT.
“Did you kill anybody in Iraq?” Miho said.
“I don’t know,” the marine said. “Got shot at a lot though. Most the time I was on night patrol. It was too dark to know if I got anybody.”
“My dad was in ’Nam,” Miho said. “He got killed.”
They ate in a manner that was eager, messy and without shame. The marine finished off her fries and then the waiter came with the check and cleared the table. They both pulled out their wallets.
“I got this,” he said.
Miho took out a ten-dollar bill and put it on the table. She didn’t like anyone paying her way.
“Let me see that,” he said, referring to her driver’s license. “’74 huh?” He smiled.
“What year are you?” she said, taking back her wallet.
She did the math in her head. His age wasn’t too far off from what she had thought. Not knowing what else to say or do, she looked out the window. After a bleak winter and the pastels of spring, the city had gone into high definition, with the sun beaming crystal rays everywhere. The trees had erupted in jade and emerald, garnet roses ran along a chain-link fence, and the parcel of sky from her vantage point was a sapphire blue. When she turned back, he was staring at her. Even his eyes under the sunlight were not black but a deep amber.
“What?” she said.
“I want to devour you,” he said.
They went to a room he was renting near Twenty-third Street and Lexington Avenue. It was an old art deco building with a curved staircase in the lobby. His room was small and had gray institutional carpeting, a futon mattress, a dresser, and a hot plate. The bathroom had never been remodeled and had separate spouts for cold and hot water. The room was stuffy and there was clothing and unopened mail on the floor. After a few uneasy moments of standing around, he opened the room’s only window. Then they went at each other in the same way that they had eaten, with vigor, intensity, and no shame.
“Say my name,” he said.
“What,” she said.
“I want you to say it,” he said.
Suddenly he stopped. “You don’t know my name, do you?”
His pupils were dilated.
“How can you fuck me and don’t know my name?”
She rolled off of him.
“Don’t do that,” she said and sat up with her back to him. “You shot people and don’t know their names.”
He pulled her back and got on top.
“It’s Nick,” he said, then bore down on her relentlessly.
Afterward, she went into the bathroom and shut the door. She sat on the toilet, pulled out the condom, and dropped it in the waste basket. She cleaned up as best she could using the washcloth draped over the sink. The little makeup she wore was smeared around her eyes, but she didn’t carry any with her so she just left it and got dressed. When she came out, Nick was playing music on his phone.
“I have to go,” she said and bent down to tie her boots.
He cornered her by the door.
“What’s the rush?”
“I have work,” she said, and stood up leaving the other lace undone.
“You need better laces,” he said, squatting to tie it for her. “What do you do?”
“Design layouts for a magazine.”
He got up and leaned into her.
“Kiss me,” he said.
She felt boxed in and didn’t like it.
“I’m gonna be late,” she said.
“Give me your phone.”
“So . . . I can put my number in it.”
She handed him her phone.
“You got issues,” he said and smirked.
“I have? You’re the one have issues,” she said. “Give me my phone.”
She snatched her phone and opened the door. He went to shut it, but she stopped it with her boot.
“We’re not finished yet,” he said.
“Get out of my way.”
Another door in the hallway open. She would yell if she had to.
“What’s your problem?” he said.
“Someone’s going to see you.”
He was standing in the doorway naked.
“I don’t care,” he said.
“That’s the problem,” she said and slipped through the door.
Miho took off down the long hallway, disoriented. She hadn’t paid attention coming up and wasn’t sure which way the elevator was. She was relieved that there was someone else coming up behind her. When she got in the elevator, she heard the person behind her saying, “Hold that, hold on, I’m coming!” Miho kept her finger on the close button, but the elevator was old and slow. When the door was halfway closed, an elderly woman appeared. Her thinning hair was the color of fire and there was a thick black line for each eyebrow that looked as if she had drawn it with a crayon. “Sorry,” Miho said and let the door shut.
She knew it wasn’t a good idea to take things further with Nick. He wanted to control her, as men often did, especially the crazy ones. At one point, she had thought of switching to women, but the only one she seriously considered talked a lot and she wasn’t into that. She took an indirect path going south, ducking into a few stores to make sure Nick wasn’t following her. When she got to Essex Street, she passed a hookah bar and remembered she was out of weed. She stopped to text the dealer her location. He was the only person she knew who didn’t share his name, at least not his real one. In her phone he was simply “D”. He texted back, “Across town gimme 10.” That gave her enough time to go into a grocer to pick up a few items.
It was time for another cleanse, so she grabbed a basket and filled it with kale, apples, a few bananas, a bag of goji berries, and ground flax seed. Then she went to the Asian section and got bonito flakes and genmaicha. A black-and-white cat darted past her and she hoped it wasn’t because of a mouse. She went to the register and paid for her items, looking nervously around her feet. When she came out of the store, she saw the black Escalade across the street. She waited for the light to change, crossed, and the dealer rolled down the passenger window. He was wearing dark glasses and black clothing. A track with a heavy bass emanated from the sound system.
“Hey,” he said.
Like her, he was sparse with words. He popped open the glove compartment, handed her a plastic bag, and took the folded bills from her.
“You look different,” he said. “You change your hair or somethin’?”
“No,” she said.
He nodded. She didn’t think he ever looked twice at her. It was hard to read him since she couldn’t see his eyes. His skin had the shade and tautness of a coffee bean. There was a small scar on his cheekbone.
“I’m good,” she said and backed up onto the curb. She just wanted to go home and shut the rest of the world out.
“Alright then, tell Roy I said what up.” He made a peace sign, then drove off.
She entered the brick building and climbed four flights to the apartment on the top floor. Being higher up was what first attracted her to the place. Prior to living here, she had a ground floor apartment near Thompson Square Park and would be woken up by voices shouting, bottles breaking, and rats scratching through the piles of garbage on the sidewalk. The ad for this apartment said, “1 bedroom, 1 bath on top floor, fits a king size bed, with good light and partial city views.” That was all true, but after nine years of toting groceries and laundry up and down, the stairs had become a nuisance. Still, it was the best she could afford and within walking distance of her job. Paying the bills on her own was not something she had expected at this stage in her life. She flung the green door open and put her keys and the bag of produce on the kitchen counter. She had recently painted the entire place white to brighten it up. Doria was on the couch watching one of her soaps.
“Oh hi, you back now,” Doria said, getting up. “Your husband was asking for you.”
Doria was short and built like a tank. The first time she saw Miho, she thought she was Filipino like her.
Miho poured a glass of water from the purifying jug.
“Yeah, now he is. I sponged him off and change his bag. But he still not eat anything. That no good.”
“I’ll make him a shake later,” Miho said and chugged down the water.
She sat at the dining table in one of the wicker chairs. Her phone started ringing but she didn’t bother to answer. It was mostly creditors who called her now. Doria sat next to her and crossed her ankles.
“I surprised he made it this long,” Doria said. “He so strong.”
Miho nodded. “The doctor said six months but . . . I don’t know.”
“Maybe he try hold onto something. Some people, they afraid to let go because they too upset. He may be worry about you.”
“No, not me,” Miho said. “I think it’s because his kid.”
“Oh, he have kid? He never say anything.”
“It’s been a long time since he talked to him, I mean her,” Miho said, correcting herself. She still had a hard time getting the gender right.
“Ohhh, well that too bad.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Miho said. “One time it got so bad he could barely breathe. He told me not to call the ambulance. It was so scary.”
“I know, I know,” Doria said. “That happen again you call me even if it’s middle of the night I come, OK?”
“Really?” Miho said.
“Yeah,” Doria said and waved her arms. “You like my sister. I appreciate that letter you did for me.”
“Did you hear anything back?”
“I got interview next month so maybe I get green card soon.”
They stood up and Doria hugged her.
“It OK,” Doria said, patting her back. “You be OK.”
After Doria left, Miho used the step stool to get the larger rice cooker from the top of the cabinet. She took out the rolling paper, then got the weed from her jacket. She rolled a few joints, working quickly.
Marijuana wasn’t something that helped her relax. It only made her paranoid. The first time she got high was in the ninth grade. She and a few kids from school went to an apartment complex across the street. After they smoked, Miho spent the rest of the afternoon in a bathroom stall waiting for the high to wear off and still can’t remember how she got home.
She put all the supplies back in the rice cooker, then went to the bedroom and opened the door. Roy looked up at her. His beard had gotten long and was graying. She offered to cut it but he wanted to keep it. The hair camouflaged how thin he had become, at least from the neck up. Sometimes he Facetimed with his mother, who lived in Dallas, and he didn’t want her to worry.
“I thought you were sleeping.”
“I tried but Doria keep comin’ in every five minutes.”
“You have to eat,” she said and sat on the edge of the bed. She handed him the joint.
“You saw D?”
“How else would I get that?”
Roy leaned over to get the lighter off the bedside table. At that moment, the way he moved almost made him seem like the man she married.
“He try anything with you?”
“No, come on. He knows you.”
“That don’t mean nothin’,” he said, resting his head back on the pillow and lighting up. “These niggas don’t care ’bout that.” He used his fingertips to wipe from his tongue some weed that had come loose. “Babe, you gotta role these tighter.”
“If you don’t like it, do it yourself,” she said.
Miho turned away and wiped her face with her hands. She couldn’t stand to see him this way. His colossal body, now just skin and bones, a shell of his former self. His touched her arm.
“What’s wrong,” he said.
“You have to ask me that?” She sniffed and looked up at the ceiling. “Nothing.”
“Here,” he said, handing her the joint.
“No, I have test on Friday.”
She could not afford to be caught with drugs in her system. Her job was the only thing keeping them afloat. Prior to him getting sick, neither one of them smoked. Then the cancer took hold and his cousin told them where to go. His cousin still called him “Red,” a nickname Roy got when they were kids because of his reddish-brown Afro. Miho moved the colostomy bags from the radiator and opened the window. They could hear the distant sounds of children leaving the school yard.
“You know I don’t like the window open,” he said. His skin was dotted with freckles and sweat.
“It’s hot in here,” she said. “And it stinks.”
“You have no filter, you know that? You could at least try—”
“Filter? Why do I need filter? I live here. If I can’t say what I want here, where am I supposed to go?”
“This isn’t my fault.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
“That’s what you act like. You so pissed off all the time.”
“I’m tired, that’s why,” she said. “All I do is work and listen to you complain.”
Their voices were momentarily drowned out by the siren of a fire truck.
“Sit here and chill for a while,” he said.
“I can’t,” Miho said and tied up the garbage.
It was true that she was angry. She didn’t want to say anything she would later regret.
“Put that out before you fall asleep,” she said and shut the door.
She turned off the television and lay on the couch. She and Roy had grown so far apart she didn’t know how to talk to him anymore. At their backyard wedding, his mother had kept saying what beautiful children they were going to have. Neither one of them was in a rush. Roy was committed to his photography and was working on a book that celebrated the “ordinary lives of Black folk” in Baltimore. He wanted to show the world that his birth city was more than crime and violence. But his editor had a breakdown, left the city, and someone with different sensibilities took over. There was a lot of back and forth about the content and purpose of the book, and eventually the publisher backed out. After the killing of Eric Garner, the same publisher signed a white photographer to shoot Black people in a different city and described it as “an intimate look at Black life during a time of social change.” Roy was furious that his idea had been stolen and intended to sue the publisher. Then he began having pains in his stomach and weeks later was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Miho understood the rage and indignity he felt because she too had been robbed of something precious. No amount of therapy, medication, or radiation would kill her pain either. The only cure was to get justice, or in her case revenge, since the window for reporting a crime had passed. It was a stupid law, especially for crimes committed against children who were unable, afraid, or too ashamed to speak up for themselves. She tried to forget it, but the trauma latched onto her like a bad smell infecting her pores, her hair, her tongue, her voice, and every room, every relationship she walked into. There was no other choice than to confront the person who did this to her. The thought of it was the only thing that kept her sane. Nothing else would comfort her, not the sunrise, the ocean, or even the possibility of a God. She remembered the letter in her back pocket and took it out. It was a useless, dead piece of paper. The meetings had been a waste of time. She sat up and got the lighter off the incense tray. She flicked it, grazing the letter’s edge, and watched her recovery go up in flames.
Josephine Ishmon is a writer, editor, and advocate for the education and welfare of homeless youth. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School and is currently working on two novels. Her writing has received support from the New School, the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and the Mellon Foundation.
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