Baby Girl

I wasn’t really ready when he asked me to go with him.

It was kind of like a party but none of our parents knew about it. We held silence in our eyes, and smiled as we slept because we knew we were going away. It existed in our minds, a smoky den with pillows and fruity drinks waiting to be spiked. A pink and silver tunnel leading to a soft kind of danger we didn’t get in our lives.

That morning, Me and my friend Chastity hit up the record store to get the new Aaliyah CD before it sold-out. What I loved most about buying CD’s was ripping the plastic wrapper off. I loved crushing it in my hand. I knew this CD would be fire. We’d been rocking with Baby Girl since she was in baggy jeans, plaid overshirts, and white tank tops. We plastered her Tommy Hilfiger fashion spreads on our walls, and wondered if our bodies would ever look as lean as hers; wondered if our hair would ever grow long as hers.

Sometimes, when I was laying down, I’d let her music play softly. It was like light rain.

Chastity was singing off-key on our way to the record store and suddenly, I started to feel that maybe tonight’s hangout wasn’t a good idea. I couldn’t say why, but my stomach could. I started to feel trapped in the car. I wanted to run, but I didn’t say anything, just sat there, waiting for Chastity to stop singing. She finally did. I didn’t know what to do with myself when I started to feel like this. Like things were about to fall into each other, like people around me were porcelain, better off stored safely inside, away from me.

But it was too late because the kickback was going down that night and we had the CD’s in our hands. I remembered how I stayed up all night trying to master the choreography of Baby Girl’s video for “Are You That Somebody.” I wanted my body to sing like hers. I cinched my t-shirt and imagined my stomach a smooth terrain. My mother was in the living room, arguing with my uncle because he drove her car and hit a pole on his way home. My sister was pressing grease into her bangs and getting pretty for a boy who only called once a week. But I found a way to fly, in my room, listening to this song. It was hard at first, learning to float, learning to look in the mirror and see an R&B singer.

That night, I wasn’t focused. I was anxious on the way to the kickback, scared that we’d drive over a mound of unsteady ground, and sink. I started humming, singing the words to Baby Girl’s song. When we arrived, the windows were dark. Ronny and his boys were sitting on a porch playing cards, and drinking wine coolers from red cups. The sky was a mustard orange with flecks of pink and purple. Ronny slid across the dirt driveway, laughing. I smiled, as he grabbed my hand and led me into this place, this hideaway with green curtains and rickety tables.

Where were we? Why this place, on this night? Why was my stomach grinding against the sunlight.

Chastity slid Baby Girl’s CD into a boombox and a temporary calm came over us. Ronny started to look a little cuter, a little more manly. I remember when we first met in elementary. His glasses were so thick, he could hardly see. His mother sent him to school in pressed button-up shirts, and his arms were always oiled, vaseline rubbing off if you got too close to him.

Now, here we were in someone’s aunt’s house, ready to break. Ready to go into the world without our parents at our backs, bending to our failures, picking us up. Ronny stood under a glint of light and his eyes, a deep hazel, cut me. I couldn’t stop looking into his eyes. Something was going to end that night, something I did not know. So I smiled, and walked toward Ronny, put my nose into the crease between his neck and his shirt. He smelled like this house, this den of nowhere.

“Why are you breathing so hard?” he asked me as I lay my head on his chest.

I didn’t answer because I knew he wouldn’t understand. He understood only what was visible, in front of him. He was so good at math it made me want to kiss him sometimes. The equations sprawled out in front of him, waiting to be taken apart.

Then we were dancing- me and Chastity. Baby Girl’s CD was spinning and we moved under that mustard pink sky, drinking spiked punch and eating old chicken wings that someone brought. This music belonged in our bodies, in our breath. Jerome laid on his back, talking about college, but I only wanted to graduate into songs, hooks, beats, flat stomachs, and summer jam stages.

Then we were running. Running between big trees and sharp brush. A green, acidic smell showered us. A lady bug crawled up my arm and i let it stay there. I was still breathing hard, expecting something unseen. Ronny held my hips and followed my scent. Chastity sang off-key, kicking up dust and rocks.

Late that night, as Baby Girl’s CD trailed off into the steady sound of crickets, I watched the shadows of trees rustling against each other outside. I felt a whisper inside my chest.

When we woke up the next morning, a woman was roaming around the house with a broom and belt. She looked like Jerome. With wide, tired eyes and deep brown skin. She was yelling. I stood up, unsteady at first, wiping my eyes to the commotion before me.

“Boy, you are gonna get it when your parents find out about this!”

“But, Aunty we were just hanging out --”

“I don’t want to hear it! Who are these kids?!”

She looked toward us as if we were shadows or strangers, and we felt, for the first time since being there, small.

I looked out of the window and saw Chastity in the car, changing clothes. I watched her, so free, pulling a sweatshirt over her tank top, then things got slower. She leaned into the radio. She stopped. She looked out of the car, through the window, into my eyes. And that’s when i knew. I walked out of the door, Ronny calling after me, but I couldn’t hear anything but a heavy stream of wind. I walked to the car, opened the door and got in. I fastened my seatbelt, listened to the radio, and vomited.

The next day at school, everyone was talking about it. The plane crash. How Baby Girl died. How it happened, why it happened, how she clung to life in those last seconds of descent, as if they knew. As if they were there themselves, beside her. Some people said they saw pictures. Pictures of her lifeless body, her hair burned into the seat. Her lean frame laid out amongst the brush. These pictures did not exist, only in nightmares and echoes of her songs on our lips.

Ronny got us big black t-shirts with her face printed on them and “One in A Million” etched across the bottom. He wore his like a religious robe, professing his love through this growing collection, hanging them in his closet, one for a each day.

That night it happened, I knew I felt something. I know my stomach built a cage around itself, but then tried to break free of the cage. I knew i felt rushing air on my skin. I knew I was seeing what others could not, and I was tasting a freedom I had never known. That night, wrapped up in Ronny’s arms, unable to speak what i knew. Running in silence, dancing and daring the world to stop me, until it did.

© Nijla Baseema Mu'min

2017

farewell westchester

There are planes above us

chicken thighs on the grill

and black girls swimming through soft blue water

 

the apartments are made with double-paned windows

one to close out the cold

one to cut out the deep whisper of engines

 

we sit on a rust orange couch

talking about movies we’ll never make

quizzing each other about movie stars we’ll never know

 

Westchester is dry heat and jet fumes all over

black girls swimming in the hot tub

apartment jungle stucco maze

 

how did i get here, feel home here

on wide streets and parking structures

full of ghosts

 

we fly and argue and laugh

because it’s so hot in this room

you’re on the way out to grill a steak

 

Westchester is a dream

a gray and silver stallion made of smoke

 

Westchester is fast and affordable

when Los Angeles pulls out and away

families can still eat at Sizzler

 

men with vacant eyes

sports bars with Inglewood OG’s

and women with finger waves hot off the beach

 

live here

because maybe i never wanted to leave

maybe i’ll miss you

 

maybe this place is so far from what i know

what i know to love

but we made home here for months

we made home in the exhaust of airplanes

we made laughter and long walks out of nowhere

 

The abandoned lot to Hollywood

~Nijla (2017)

what is this thing called breathing

For Karen Elaine Smith, Rashanda Franklin, and Sheila Abdus-Salaam

 

1.

I’m sure you were headed to work

tasting the last bite of bagel on your tongue

freshly ironed slacks and wig right

all you could see were faces

 

Down into a windy city of forgotten

 

down the street, past that taco place

where you maybe first met him

down into the seat, red spilling over

because of a gun

and your sons sitting inside the car

 

What is this thing called breathing

a gift unfolded

the water so cold against your face

 

2.

why did he come here?

to my space

i cannot feel my hands

and the water is colder than i remember

and we’re gone

cut off from the air that fed us

and the hands that held us

and the eyes that saw us

Really saw us

in dandelion golds and evenings on that porch

splinters in our fingers, running through weeds with flip flops on

and icees in our hands because DC is hot,

and Richmond is too, in an abandoned way

jumping on rocks and catching light

jumping into vaselined arms and fresh tats

he cried for me, once

he cried for me

and the tears soaked the cotton

the cotton close to my chest

 

3.

I was breathing

 

I learned to swim from my father

who learned to swim from being pushed into a water hole

and fighting his way back up

I am heavier these days

and i am brown

I am finding it harder to move in the world

someone’s at my back

barrel at my window

The wind on my stomach

 

In this river,

 

what is this thing called breathing?

 

~Nijla Mu’min