[Excerpt from my book “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir”]
As we moved into the early nineteen eighties, my stepfather’s mechanic business in Haiti began to crumble. Up until that point, we were always well provided for. The wife beater was undoubtedly a good provider. My mother did not want to hang around to watch her status crumble, so she started to make plans to travel to a land where life opportunities were more plentiful. She had been traveling back and forth to America anyway, so she decided to attain visas for herself and my stepfather. She asked my biological father to get a visa for me—he had U.S. residency, mercantile status and had been a frequent traveler to the U.S. for business purposes for years. Eventually, all of us were able to get visas. Our next big problem was finding the money to get out of Haiti!
My mother once again used her ingenuity and sold most of her property. She sold her clothes, furniture and jewelry, anything she could stand to part with. Since my stepfather was a mechanic with his own business, he sold his cars to come up with the other half of the money. My biological father did not contribute a dime for traveling expenses. He felt that getting me the visa was more than enough. He already believed that he had done more for me than his father had done for him. And he was adamant not to overextend himself. But he did pay for my private school and a private physician and gave my mom a pittance as allowance for child support. Looking back now, I realized that he did the best he could for me. Private school really gave me the tools and discipline I needed to make Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society in U.S. colleges. So thanks Dad. Rest in peace, wherever you are. He died without ever telling me that he loved me. I used to love his playfulness, his charisma and charm and his effortless ways with the ladies. And he passed all that on to me. He was more generous with his genes than he ever was with his money. And that has to be okay, since I am living for today.
So eventually we came to America in the year of 1984. The year of Michael Jackson, Tina Tuner, Prince, Cindy Lauper and Madonna! We were trying to find a place to colonize. The first U.S. ground we stepped onto when we got off of the American Airlines plane was Florida. We spent less than a month there, then moved on to New York. At that point we had to split up. I was left with my mom’s sister who lived in Brooklyn, and my mom went to Boston to stay with my one of my stepfather’s relatives in order to establish some stability before coming back for me. At this point I was thirteen years old. I was fat and looked like a girl. I looked like a black and chubby Boy George without the long dreadlocks. At one point, I even made the long dreadlocks from a brown cloth to seal the deal. People were constantly asking, “Is that a boy or a girl?” Sometimes I felt like saying, “I was a boy last night when I fucked your mother motherfucker!” I have never been afraid to express my feminine side, mostly because I grew up with predominantly female influences.
I was confused and angry that my mom left me in Brooklyn with my eccentric aunt Lili. Actually I liked Aunt Lili. She was a powerful, full-bodied gal with a restless heart. Aunt Lili was a very charismatic woman. I didn’t always know why I loved aunt Lili. I guess it was because I was too young to understand her “mystery.” Her sisters would describe her as “carefree.” She had this way of gliding into a crowded room and swooping everyone with her gaiety. People would gather around her as if she were a small town girl who went to Hollywood only to return to her roots to show that she’s done well for herself. She looked and acted like a success story! Even though she sometimes possessed the wild haunted look of a caged exotic animal. When someone expressed a worry to her, she’d laugh and say, “Do I look like the Bible to you? I don’t have all the answers!” And they would often laugh along with her, in awe of her nonchalance, her benevolent detachment.
Aunt Lili was a tall and graceful woman, with a small upper body and large…lower body. Her eyes were a liquid, glossy back color, daring and twinkling with mischief. She could easily resemble an Amazon woman, with long flailing arms and a soaring presence. When she laughed, it was loud and lingering like the echoes of mirth that once emanated from young and foolish girls running in the desert. Her head would tilt back, her mouth gaping as her dilated pupils danced around merrily under the skies. She was 30-something and never really talked about having been an orphan since the age of ten. She never liked to “make a big deal” out of things. She worked as a Nursing Assistant while she attended cosmetology school. I could see her gleefully enchanting her customers with her bright gregarious demeanor. Her African Queen lips were always perched to speak the truth.
Aunt Lili was built like she grew up on a farm instead of the city. She had strong and large bones so she carried her weight well. And she was the only one of her four sisters to exercise. Every Saturday morning when we were in Haiti, I woke up to her heavy footsteps galloping up and down the stairs: “thump pada thump pada thump….” Once I watched her beat up her husband in a fistfight. I remember quietly cheering, “Yeah Aunt Lili, kick his bony ass! Kick his mother fucking assss!” I acted like a derelict referee who incited the conflict instead of intervening. As strong as she was, she still wore long flowery dresses that flowed gently in the wind, softening her appearance. Aunt Lili kept her make up light and simple, like her life. No big deal.
She never felt like she belonged among the drab ordinary life in which she found herself living, with her husband and two kids in a dilapidated walk up apartment in Brooklyn, New York. One time she told me a story about how she gave birth to one to of her kids accidentally, shooting out Dimi unexpectedly while she was laughing gleefully at a joke her doctor had told her. The kids seemed like an impediment to her loose standard of living. She always took the kids to their godmother as much as possible, even if she didn’t have anywhere to go. Once, she took the kids to their godmother and returned to kick back and watch Three’s Company with me. That’s how I learned most of my English, by watching Three’s Company with Aunt Lili. Sometimes I got the feeling, even as a kid, that she wasn’t cut out to be a wife, or mother, but simply a floater. She always seemed like she needed to be somewhere else. She always spoke of being in Hollywood enjoying the bright lights and glamour of being a famous clothing designer. I’m just sorry that I never got to see the dreamer realize her dreams. We lost her to AIDS in 1987. Even after she died, some of her “mystery” still lingers behind like an echo in the desert of broken hearts. She will always have a spot, somewhere in the V.I.P. section of my heart.
My mother came to get me long before Aunt Lili passed on. My aunt had never even enrolled me in school—my mother thought that leaving me with her irresponsible sister was a recipe for disaster
! But when she came to get me, she warned me that she did not live in the best of conditions. She lived in a dingy one-bedroom basement apartment with my highly intoxicated stepfather and she was also pregnant with my sister. So I knew I was about to tread the dangerous territory of mood swingers: a hormonal pregnant woman and an alcoholic beast of a man! I didn’t mind. As long as I was with my mother.
I remember the day I came to Boston. It was bitterly cold and I was particularly ill equipped for the dire weather. The walk from the bus station to the house just about had me in tears. My fingers were numb but my heart was full, thankful that I was re-united with mom. But there was something different about her eyes. They were bulbous, unusually black and blank. The resiliency they once had housed was gone. She looked resigned and forlorn. Little did I know that those eyes were going to set the tone for the tragic and cataclysmic years ahead.
To Be Continued…
Jacques Fleury is a Poet, Author and Columnist. His book “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. Sample or buy the book at: www.lulu.com. 20% of proceeds will go to Haiti charity Partners In Health. For personal appearances or comments, contact Jacques at: firstname.lastname@example.org.