She always had this look somewhere in between hating everything and finding it all very amusing...
We worked together, Rachel and I: cashiers in the café at the National Sculpture Garden. We became cool between sips of red wine we snuck on break and complaining about spoiled customers. Although I introduced myself to her as Sharron she rechristened me Ronnie. I had never been called anything other than Sharron. Plus she wore a grey wig on the first day of work that made her look like Storm from X-Men. The manager told her she couldn’t wear it again because colored hair wasn’t allowed. She said “a’ight” but when he walked away she turned to me and rolled her eyes.
She always seemed high. In fact, I knew that until he was fired, she would smoke before clocking in with this white boy named Nathaniel who worked in the kitchen. One day he declared that his eyes were “redder than the devil’s dick”. A customer overheard and told the manager and that was the end of Nathaniel.
“I knew he was gon’ get fired,” Rachel told me over a cigarette that day. “He was always talking shit.”
I don’t know if she stopped getting high before work when Nathaniel left. He was the one who supplied their weed. Anyway, it was hard to tell because she always had this look somewhere in between hating everything and finding it all very amusing.
“What is this shit anyway?” Rachel asked, lifting up the multigrain bread on our gourmet sandwiches.
“Girl, hell if I know,” I mumbled, picking out the tomatoes. One of the perks of the job was a free meal every shift. Only the Ethiopians brought their own food, Tupperware containers of spicy smelling home-cooked meals. Everyone else took what was given.
“Look at these fools.” Rachel laughed, gesturing with her bag of chips to the ice rink outside. Over-dressed white folk circled around, flashing cameras and falling on their asses. “Damn near 70 degrees out there.”
“Indian summer,” I said. She gave me a confused look.
“What’s that mean?”
“Like when it’s hot in the winter or whatever.” I wasn’t totally sure what an Indian Summer was myself. I had heard our manager say it earlier to a customer.
“Why they call it Indian?” Rachel wanted to know.
I shrugged. “No idea.”
“Probably some old racist shit.” Rachel laughed, reaching for her coffee. She tipped it toward me just enough so I could see the contents. “Black, honey, till I die.”
“Put some cream in that.” Rachel was several shades lighter than me, much closer to a blonde roast than the coffee in hand.
“Fuck it,” was all she said in response.
We picked at our sandwiches for a few moments and watched customers wander in and out of the café. They ordered hot chocolates and whatever else their screaming children demanded. We finished up, threw our trash away and then headed outside to enjoy a quick cigarette in our last ten minutes of break.
“Listen, Ronnie, I been meaning to talk to you about something,” Rachel said after a while. She had her cigarette in one hand and a cup in the other. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“What?” I asked.
“Can you drive me to this halfway house in Maryland next weekend?”
She took a sip of her lemonade mixed with red wine and watched me closely over the cup.
“What part of Maryland?” I asked, deliberately trying not to give her a reaction. I had never been to a halfway house. I’d never known anyone who had been in one and she probably figured that.
“I’ll give you the address,” she said. “It’s only 40 minutes away but I don’t know about the buses out there. Plus I figure you just get out of a halfway house the last place you wanna be is a bus. Basically the same thing.”
“I would have to check the schedule and see if I’m off.”
“You are. I checked.”
“Okay — I can take you.”
Rachel grinned “That’s wassup. I don’t know nobody else with a car.”
“Who are we picking up?” I asked. She turned quickly to me, squinting. I thought maybe I had crossed a line. I didn’t know if we were friends. All I knew was that we worked together and she had asked for a favor. “I mean you don’t have to tell me.”
“He was like my high school sweat-heart or whatever. He was really the only person I fucked with in the school. Everyone in there was drama, you know high-school. Every bitch think you fuckin’ her man, every man think you wanna fuck him, you know?”
I nodded though I didn’t know. My high school was nothing like that.
“Anyway, so yeah I got pregnant by him cause we were in love. I still kind of expected him to disappear cause that’s what they do but I still wanted to have his baby. I had never loved anyone like that I and I was thinking okay, I’ll never feel this way again. I don’t even know why I’m telling you this.”
“I’m the only person you know with a car.”
She laughed. “Right, yeah. Well, he didn’t change. He stayed around and he kept doing everything he had always done. He always treated me real special. I never had that before.”
“Like walk with me to school or when his older brother got a car he would give us both rides, or bring me food when I wasn’t feeling good. You know it’s hard to find someone who really gives a fuck about anything.”
“So one day there was a fight after a football game. It wasn’t at the school; it was at the Wendy’s cross over into Maryland. High school fight. Anyway by the time police got there, like three kids got stabbed. I still don’t really know if he had anything to do with it but he probably did. He probably started it all. Either way he got state time, three years.”
She laughed then sighed.
“Shit,” was all I could say. I watched her as she dropped her cigarette and ground it out.
“That’s the way it goes, right?” She swished the ice in her cup before taking a final sip and throwing it in the trash.
I took one last drag then gestured to her cigarette on the ground. “You better pick that up before the manager sees it.”
“Fuck it.” Rachel shrugged, and she led the way back inside.
The next day after work I asked Rachel if she wanted a ride home. She said okay and then offered to do my hair. I didn’t know if she was offering out of friendship or for sake of reimbursement, but I accepted.
We had the AM shift and clocked out at 3:30. Before going to her apartment we picked up her daughter Jakayla from daycare, which was a small house at the end of a one-way street. I parked on the corner and as we walked to the building, Rachel told me that her daughter was four and could have started kindergarten, but Rachel was against sending her to public school.
“They got even worse since we was in there,” she said. “There’s drugs everywhere, even in elementary schools, you never know.”
Jakayla was bubbly and talkative and didn’t really remind me much of Rachel except that they had the same dark brown, practically black eyes. On the way back to my car I offered to push the stroller for her, even though I was too tall for it.
“I can tell you don’t have no kids,” Rachel said with a smirk. She mocked me pushing the stroller, doubling over with her arms in front of her, a goofy expression on her face. Jakayla laughed hysterically and imitated her. Rachel chuckled.
On the steps of her apartment building there was a group of pre-pubescent girls and boys eating candy and teasing each other. They fell silent when we approached. Rachel took the stroller from me and she folded up the contraption then stared at the group of kids.
“Damn, move!” she demanded after a beat. “Ignorant ass motherfuckers.”
They shifted to the side as she pushed past them, carrying the stroller like a battering ram. Jakayla was on her heels and I followed quickly. The sea of kids closed behind us, still in reverent silence.
At her home she introduced me to her two sisters, their children, and her mother, who looked like she could have been her sister. They all sat in the living room, watching some children’s cartoon on the large television set and eating chips. One of the sisters had on a nurse uniform under her open winter coat and appeared to be either coming in or heading out. The mother offered me some chips. The youngest sister, probably sixteen or so, asked me if I wanted to hold her baby for a minute. I turned down the chips and picked up the baby. Before long the middle daughter got up and drifted down the hall of the apartment with her son, seemingly uninterested in talking or sharing her child with me.
Rachel ushered me into a cluttered bedroom down the hall. She dug through a mound of clothes and toys on the bed and came up with a couple of combs, a packet of hair-extensions, scissors, and some hair grease. We then moved into the small kitchen where she immediately got to work.
“You go to college right?” Rachel asked as she combed my hair.
“Yeah,” I told her. “Well not right now. It’s holiday break.”
“What school you go to?”
“UDC,” I said, and then quickly added, “But I’m trying to transfer to University of Maryland.”
“Oh yeah?” She sounded impressed. “That’s a good school.”
“Thanks,” I said, though I had no idea why.
“What do you want to do with it?”
“School.” She laughed, tapping me on the head with the comb.
“Oh I don’t know,” I said. “I wanted to write stories but they didn’t have a program for it so now I do administrative training.”
“Oh,” was all she said. She pushed my head down to comb the back.
“I probably won’t transfer. I don’t know.”
“I never knew what I wanted to do. That’s why I never went to school.”
“That makes sense.”
“My mother always said to go to school for better opportunities but she didn’t really know anything about it,” Rachel continued. “She never went to school and I don’t think she even knows anybody that did. She works for Guest Relations too, at the tennis center.”
“Oh for real?”
“Mm-hmm. I always like to ask people about college if I know they go to it. But I’m gonna be honest, I’ve never heard anything too impressive about it. And at the end of the day you and I work at the same position.”
“That’s true. But a college degree gives people a better chance of moving to higher positions.”
“You sound like a commercial,” Rachel said flatly. “But you the one that go to college I guess.”
We didn’t say much to each other after that. She turned on the small kitchen TV and the same cartoon that had been playing in the living room flashed on the screen. I tried to give my full attention the cartoon, all the while wondering if she had confirmed that I was wasting my time in college. After twenty minutes or so she announced that she was done and she led me to the door. It was early in the evening and the group of kids had been replaced with a group of teenage girls.
“Your hair cute,” one of the girls said to me as Rachel and I slid past.
“Thanks,” I said proudly. “She did it.”
“Ooooh, can you do mine, Rachel?”
“If you got the money, honey,” Rachel said, without turning to face the girl. “Thanks Rachel,” I said. “I’ll see you at work.”
“A’ight,” she said. She was already walking back towards her building, head down, hands in her pockets, most likely looking for her cigarettes and her lighter.
On the day of the half-way house trip, I pulled up to her building and appreciated the emptiness of the front steps. It was pretty early in the morning, too early for the kids or the teenage girls. I called Rachel on her cell and she quickly came out with Jakayla at her side. Rachel waved at me. There were smiles on both of their faces. I hardly recognized her at first. Her hair was bone-straight and parted in the middle. She had on a full face of make-up, a short black skirt, black high-heeled boots and a pea-coat that looked borrowed. Jakayla had on a frilly pink dress, with black patent shoes and a puffy white coat. I didn’t know what half-way house attire was, so I had gone casual, with jeans, my work shoes, and a sweatshirt. I figured it didn’t really matter. I didn’t know anybody where we were going.
The half-way house was a regular old cement building: non-descript and uninteresting. The most notable thing about it was that it was located next to a Checkers restaurant.
Rachel asked me to come in with them, and though I didn’t really want to, I figured I had come this far.
Rachel checked in and we took a seat in the waiting room. Jakayla placed her coloring book on a chair and hunched over it, adding a few crayon scratches to each page before flipping to a new one.
After a while the woman behind the desk called Rachel up. Jakayla abandoned her coloring book and turned to her mother. Rachel leapt out of her seat, smiled at me, and walked happily up to the desk with Jakalya right behind her. I returned the smile but stayed seated.
“What do you mean?” I heard Rachel asked after a minute. She was glaring down at the woman behind the desk. “I got a call saying today.”
The woman then said something as Rachel shook her head angrily.
“No, they told me today.”
The woman spoke again. She was clearly well trained in delivering bad news.
“Circumstances? What the fuck you mean circumstances?”
The conversation went on but my attention had turned to Jakayla, who was walking slowly away from them. She looked like Rachel in that moment.
“Okay, okay, fuck it.”
Rachel stomped back in my direction. She mumbled “let’s go” and continued out the door without waiting for Jakayla or me. I grabbed Jakayla’s hand and followed.
She said nothing as we got in my car and I pulled off the curb. Instead she took out her packet of cigarettes and got ready to light one.
“Don’t smoke in here,” I said automatically.
“I just don’t like it.”
“You don’t like it, open a window,” she said, lifting her lighter.
“I left my color book,” Jakalya said.
“Sit back,” Rachel demanded. “Put the seatbelt on.”
“Rachel, I’m serious,” I said.
“Can we go back for it?” Jakayla asked.
“No!” She lit the cigarette. “And put the damn seatbelt on.”
“Hey, I know you’re upset. We can talk about it if you want.”
“Fuck would I want to talk about?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t want you to smoke in here.”
“Listen, I’m only asking one thing.”
Her hand was on the door before I made it to the sidewalk. Jakayla slipped out the back.
“I’m trying to be a good friend — ” I said as Rachel got out.
“We ain’t friends, Sharron,” she said, before slamming the door. Stunned, I watched her, thinking she might change her mind and re-enter the car.
She threw an arm up, gesturing for me to go away.
I didn’t have to be told twice.
The next time I saw Rachel was back at work. I didn’t say anything about the halfway house and she didn’t bring it up. We didn’t say much to each other at all. I carried orders from the kitchen to the register. She drank her lemonade & wine mix and stared at customers, looking irritated as they ordered food.
I didn’t know if we were going to take break together but she turned to me at our usual time and said, “You eatin’?”
We didn’t sit in the café. Instead we walked around the Sculpture Garden, munching on the sandwiches, sipping coffee and as always, ending with cigarettes.
“I should teach Jakayla how to skate,” she said. “She could go to the Olympics or some shit.”
“Do you know how?”
“Yeah, you never seen me skate?” Rachel sounded shocked. “I’m good.”
“I wish I knew how.”
“You can learn real fast working here. I used to skate on my breaks all the time and after work.”
“I might start doing that,” I said, though I knew I wouldn’t.
“I gotta teach Jakayla a skill so she doesn’t work for Guest Relations.”
“Guest Relations isn’t that bad.”
“It’s nothing,” Rachel said. “This job don’t mean nothing.”
“Do you still write stories?”
“You said you wrote stories, wanted to go to school for it but they didn’t have a program.
“Oh.Yeah. Not really.”
“Damn, Ronnie.” She shook her head. “You should write one. You smart enough.”
“Write one ‘bout me,” she said, sucking her cigarette.
“A story about you?”
“Yeah.” She glared. “What you don’t think I’m interesting?”
“I didn’t — ”
She dropped her cigarette to the ground and walked back to the café.
Kesia Alexandra is a creative writer from Washington, DC. She studied at Boston University. She’s on Twitter and Instagram. She’s the author of It Ain’t Easy, Eating off the Floor and Majestic and Lynn.