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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Americans Gone, I Find Myself Thinking

by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

The mornings used to be ours, and we filled them as we pleased. We’d send the children to school, then make love, or discuss what happened the day before. For a while the deportations were the only news: Dominicans Grow Weary of Haitian Refugees. Our conversations started off emotional. The first woman the officials kicked out watched our oldest daughter once or twice. She was a sweet girl, if absentminded, Dominican through and through, didn’t speak a word of Creole, thick off of empanadas, couldn’t fry akra if her life depended on it. I cried over that one, and you a little too, not because we would miss her but because if she wasn’t Dominican then we weren’t either.

The most recent deportation came after your American girlfriend turned your eye. I was too tired to be interested. I underlined the man’s name in the paper with the tip of my index fingernail—his father drove the moto that took me to school as a child— then folded the paper and cleaned the bottom of my shoes with it.

I should be at the clinic. I’ve been late for work every day the last three weeks, and they’ve noticed, but I’m going to finish this coffee and sit here and think. It was the Americans who taught me about thinking. Of course there was only one volunteer at first, Robin, a lovely girl, a compassionate girl, and if she had been the only one, I’d still be glorifying America. She had the loudest laugh. The first time I heard it, it startled me. You know me, there is nothing that announces love to me like laughter following something I’ve said. But the first time I heard her laugh, it startled me and I forgot to be soothed by it. Then the second time meant something. She had this odd habit of running three miles every morning around our small town, our batey. She invited me one day, and I told her I only run when I’m being chased. No one ever laughed for me the way she laughed then, and she became my friend.

Anyway, she would ask me what I thought about the deportations. I’d tell her the Dominican government was racist against Haitian descendants. She tried to teach me about feelings. “I know the deportations are racist, but how do they make you feel?” she’d ask. I thought that was an interesting question, but something about it unnerved me and it took me a while to find the reason.

She was good with the children. The girls followed her everywhere. They weren’t content to just be around her, they had to take her in through one of their senses—they had to be close enough to smell the grease she fingered through her hair in the morning; they had to pet her sticky, lotioned skin. Initially you didn’t like her, I know, and she didn’t like you either. You’d think I’d be allergic to someone who didn’t like my husband, and I don’t know what it said about my love for you that I wasn’t.

Robin and I were closest when you were off at work at the resorts, digging out holes for swimming pools then serving drinks to uppity Dominicans beside them. In the batey, you had a great big voice that stopped people where they stood; you were a shade darker than everyone around you, and it made you appear taller, bolder. But out at the resorts once, I saw you talk to a Dominican. He wasn’t even your boss, he shoveled dirt right alongside you, but you touched the tip of your hat and nearly bowed when all he’d done was nod at you. Of course I’d seen that my whole life, my daddy its strongest enactor, but you’d led protests; I’d seen you incite hundreds of people to rage so thick they destroyed everything in their path, but in front of that Dominican you were bendable. When he was gone, you looked away from me. I didn’t know what to say. I had seen you be a person I didn’t know, and I was shy more than embarrassed. I know now what I would have said. There are many soft, wifely options: “I understand, mi vida,” or “I’m so sorry, mi corazon;” it’s only a matter of which would have come out first.

No, I wasn’t embarrassed until I saw it happen again. This time it was with your American girlfriend, Diamond. The funny thing was I was the reason they hired Diamond. The head of the clinic wanted to promote me, to add to my duties so I’d spend more time with the doctor, but I had the children. I encouraged the doctor to give another American volunteer a chance. The first time I met her I saw she wasn’t the kind of girl who needed to be given anything. She was the kind who would make her way.

Her loose brown curls touched the top of her waist; her breasts had the full, round perk childless women can sustain, and when she stood, there was a space between her legs big enough to fit a bottle of Presidente. She had light skin too, but none of that was as big a deal as the qualities I couldn’t pinpoint, something coming out of her core compelling anyone near her to draw her in closer, to give her something precious. I have presented her very delicately, but she walked like a woman who had never heard the word wait. Didn’t she?

I knew you were intrigued the first time you met her, not because of anything you said or even did. You were respectful of me back then and protective too. Even if you had entertained secret thoughts about her, you wouldn’t have thrown them in my face. But I knew still, because of the way I felt around her. Once when I sat across from her during a clinic meeting, she bent down to pick something up. She didn’t reveal much, but I caught the tip of the line between her breasts, and out of nowhere, I felt the urge to cross my legs and clear my throat. This was a woman who in her hard stares and slow leans was conveying irresistability to me, so I could only imagine what she was telling my husband. Like I said, you weren’t too showy, but you were more than a little polite with her and I remembered then how you had bowed and touched your hat with that Dominican.

I wasn’t jealous at first; it was a slow climb. I had a great deal of confidence then. It had taken me some time to build it and it was solid because of the consistent effort. Looking back, maybe I had too much; I will certainly never have as much again. It wasn’t just the confidence. Diamond’s appeal was so lofty I never considered it attainable. Sure I was pretty: people marveled at my white smile against my black skin my whole life and everyone was surprised to know I had two kids with the figure I kept. Still, I would have considered it a great waste of energy and time comparing. We were two different people, two different experiences, so disparate, someone wanting one would not find himself in the vicinity of the other.

But then you went out drinking with Papo one day, celebrating something, I’m not sure what. I remember that you asked me if you could go and I was happy to lose you for a night. I had fallen asleep waiting on you. Some time before the chickens started, Papo’s wife came by. I shot up in bed at the knocking. My daddy’s foreman would knock on his door in the morning to rouse him for the cane fields and I’ve associated knocking since with shame. She asked me if I had seen Papo. I told her I hadn’t and we dressed quickly and went out, startling every household in the batey, riding off to the adjacent towns once we finished. I knew before I started looking that you’d been taken.

Not deported, just detained—we got you back in a week—and isn’t there a difference? You weren’t sent off to another country you never knew; you weren’t gone for good, but you were. Another man came back to my house nine days later. You looked away when you talked to me; you went out of your way to avoid touching me. That wasn’t fair though because I wasn’t the one who captured you, I wasn’t the one who locked you in a cell in the army base, I didn’t withhold a bucket so you were forced to behave like an animal, though you always prided yourself on the clean white strip of your fingernails. You never told me about those nights, but I read the papers and I could imagine the rest.

Not too many weeks after you came back, every woman I saw in the batey had heard something about you and Diamond. They either lowered their eyes at me in the market or pulled me aside with advice I was too prideful to take: “Are you doing your part to satisfy him, young lady?” If I answered at all, they’d shake their heads in disbelief, then say, “Well, it isn’t always what you do, it’s how, you know that, of course?”

The younger ones, most of them my friends, only wanted a reaction; they were tired of bending themselves out of shape on my behalf if I wouldn’t join them. “This is your husband, mujer,” they would shout, “your husband, and you are going to let some hussy American come in and take him?”

“She’s not even a real American, she’s black American,” another might add. “You have to fight for what’s important to you. Otherwise, how is the man going to know how important he is?”

I’ve always had a habit of laughing when I’m most disturbed and I resorted to it then, strange, empty laughter. They’d take it to mean I didn’t care anymore, but I did and I’d consider their points later. I’d imagine myself fighting for what I wanted, but I couldn’t see the vision playing out.

What was I going to do, cry out? Act the way one of my children would have behaved? Lie out on my belly and throw a fit in the middle of the batey where everyone could see me? Would that have been the way to get you back? Would I have wanted you then, won back that way, knowing if you had your way you’d be with someone else? Knowing every time you drifted off while I was talking, you were imagining Diamond. She’d have rendered the sentence more wittily; she’d be off somewhere, combating age and drawbacks the way memories do.

When my brother was 12, he won the annual 100-meter dash. We’d all been certain he’d lose, but his fiercest opponent tripped on a rock 50 meters in and the batey lifted him on their shoulders and carried him back to our house. He told me a few days after that he’d put the rock there, seeming prouder that he’d won through preliminary effort. I didn’t tell on him, but I never understood his smugness. The win wasn’t his by right; his opponent was the most favored, but my brother stepped in and disturbed things. I told my stepmother that story finally after you left us. My brother was her real child and she shooed away the content and the message. She said the real winner held the prize—the prize was what signified winning—and I said that would not be true for me.

The door opens. It is you back already for your morning snack, and I’ve just been sitting around thinking like the jam will shake its way free of the jar, walk over and lay itself down on the pan. You don’t say anything. You are kinder with my lapses these days.

The Americans came and went, and you with them, then a month after Diamond went back to America, you remembered yourself, you said. You said it had nothing to do with her being gone. It was like some spirit had jumped into your body and rode you for a few months, then it slipped out and into some other philanderer. There are some women in the town who really believe that was what happened. I believe you were sorry. Every day there was a more refined explanation, a sweeter note, a more valuable gift. Each time, I let the door open just a little wider until one night you made your way to the kitchen table, eating my moro and holding our girls. We put them to bed and it had been such a long time, it was impossible to send you off.

“You going into work?” you ask.

Claro,” I say. “In a minute.”

“You said that two hours ago,” but you are smiling. You place your hand on my stomach. It juts out farther, sits higher than it did with the girls. You want me to give you a son this time, and I believe I can do that. You nod toward the bedroom still holding me.

“It’s not that kind of party,” I say, a leftover American phrase Robin would deliver when she didn’t feel like doing something.

You laugh and say you ought to be getting back to work anyhow. We are both at the clinic now. To avoid the deportations, they took you on and that has been good for your esteem. Another word the Americans taught me and I have to admit it is nice to see the girls talk about you to their friends with pride.

“You ought to be getting back too,” you say. “In a minute,” I say again, and you close the door still smiling.

You are always smiling now. I tell myself your smiles are more meaningful because you flew off to see if another world could widen them, but you returned to us; sometimes I forget to wonder if your smiles for her looked any different; I don’t like to consider the why’s, if it was my presence or her absence that drew you back.

There is an empty space in me, where I’d felt warmth, thinking we were one. If I sit here long enough, maybe I can call that feeling back. Or maybe it’s all over now; maybe it was just a trick anyway. Yes, that’s what I would tell Robin about feelings, if she ever came back and asked me a silly question again, that you can’t rely on them, and that most feelings you can make do without. I sit back down in my seat and sigh, raising my cold coffee to my lips. I’m tired, and it’s only morning. I should get up and do something, I know I should, but I don’t feel up to it yet.