Image: Tolu Bamwo c/o Nappy.co
Nia’s father was standing next to the stove. He was bent over his laptop, squinting at the screen, his lips tucked around an ink pen. Now and again he plucked the pen from his mouth to jot something on a notepad. The kettle whistled. He turned it off, poured water into a mug, and stirred in Folgers.
To Nia, he looked like he was in a play kitchen. Like the one her parents had put into storage along with her mother’s piano (which had once belonged to Nia’s great-grandmother), and the dresser her father had had since he was Nia’s age. None of it had come with them to the new apartment because there wasn’t enough room.
Nia had always felt like a giant in her kitchen and she wondered if that’s how her father felt now as he stood in his. Did he miss the kitchen in their old house, where his head didn’t almost touch the bumpy ceiling and there was more room to move around? Where there’d been a window overlooking the backyard. This kitchen had no window, only a rectangular opening in the wall above the sink. Instead of a backyard, whoever was washing dishes could stare into the living room.
As he turned to open the refrigerator, he saw Nia sitting in the small dining area next to the kitchen. His hand shook and coffee splashed onto his T-shirt. “You trying to scare me to death, Punkin? How long you been sitting there?” He wiped at his tee but the coffee just blended into the other stains.
Nia giggled. “I just woke up.”
“Well, you just missed your mother, too. She was running late. You hungry?”
He took a box of Cornflakes from the top of the refrigerator, shook it, and frowned. “Or I can make you some oatmeal.”
“Pancakes!” Nia knew pancakes were only for weekends — and sometimes special “Breakfast for Dinner Nights” — but it was summer. It wasn’t like she had school. And her father didn’t have anywhere to be either.
“Pancakes?” He leaned against the counter and sipped his coffee.
“Please, Daddy. Please, please, please!”
“I guess we can do that.”
But Nia could only eat one of her father’s pancakes, and part of the second. She didn’t understand what went wrong because she’d watched him make them. He’d used all the same things her mother did — the Bisquick, the eggs, the milk. But they were too mushy in the middle and the sides weren’t crispy.
“Why’d you ask for them if you weren’t gonna eat them?” He sat across from her, his laptop, notepad, and coffee in front of him.
Nia shrugged. She pierced a small bite and dragged it through syrup.
Her father snatched the plate away and her fork clattered to the table, sending sticky droplets everywhere. “Don’t ask for food you don’t plan to eat, Nia.” He picked up the fork, stabbed several bites of pancake, and stuffed them into his mouth. “It costs too much to be wasting.” His cheeks bulged around the words.
Nia looked down at her zoo animals placemat. The zebra, monkey, and lion blurred into unrecognizable shapes. She wiped her eyes.
“Go to your room if you’re gonna cry.”
“But I’m not crying,” she said.
He made her go anyway.
Nia sat on her bed and listened to dishes clank into the sink, then running water. She changed from her pajamas into shorts and a T-shirt and sat back on the bed. When she heard her father’s bedroom door close, she came out.
In the living room, she flopped onto the couch and turned on the TV. She clicked past stuff only grown-ups would watch, pausing a few times to wait through the commercials. But when the shows returned, they were never cartoons. Just talk shows and judge shows and shows with no kids in them. Her hand found the worn spot on the couch cushion and she stroked absently at the smooth, threadbare fabric. At their old house they’d had cable.
After a time, Nia leaned across the back of the couch and twisted open the window blinds. The second-floor apartment looked down on a gated swimming pool. A woman exited the gate carrying a rubber duckie float in one arm, a chubby toddler in the other. Nia watched her track wet flip-flop prints down the sidewalk and out of sight.
Nia had only been to the pool once since they’d moved to the apartment. She’d stopped trying to measure that time, to figure out how many Saturdays had passed since they’d left their house. She only knew it had been a few weeks after she’d finished 1st grade. Her mother said she would start her new school next month. So it had been that long.
Maybe after lunch, she’d ask her father to blow up her floaties and take her swimming. He’d promised, after all. Both he and her mother had promised. They’d said: “Nia, there’s a pool in the complex and our new apartment is right across from it. You’ll be able to go swimming whenever you want. Won’t that be fun?”
It had been her mother who’d taken Nia to the pool the one time, which meant she’d had to wait until the weekend, when her mother was off work, even though her father was always off now and had been since right before Christmas. He had time to take her swimming every day if he wanted, but he only came out of his room to make her breakfast and lunch. Nia didn’t know for sure what all he did in there since he usually kept the door closed, but she assumed he mostly slept because that’s what he was doing whenever she went in. He didn’t like it when she entered without permission, but she had to if knocking didn’t work and she needed to shake him awake to tell him it was lunchtime. Nia didn’t like naps as much as her father did. Maybe if she hung a blanket over her window, too, she’d find it easier to get to sleep in the middle of the day.
The few times he left the door open, Nia could see him on his laptop. “I’m looking for jobs, Nia. What do you want?” he’d say. But sometimes he changed from his T-shirt and sweatpants into nice pants and a shirt with buttons because he had to go out. He also called this “looking for jobs.” But Nia didn’t like when he looked for jobs this way because it meant he’d have to drop her off at Miss Jean’s, where the whole house smelled like the ointment Nia’s mother rubbed on her chest when she had a cold.
Nia got up from the couch and went into the kitchen. She took a plastic cup from the drying rack and filled it with grape juice, careful not to slam the fridge. She gulped half the juice on her way back to the living room and set the cup down on the coffee table. The coloring books she’d been told to put away last night were still there, stacked neatly at the top edge of the table, her box of crayons in the center, as if her mother or father had meant to take them to Nia’s room but had forgotten. Her mother’s Essence magazines were in the center of the table, arranged in the shape of a fan. Next to them, a set of coasters. Nia set her cup on one of the magazines.
Two books also took up space on the table, one almost as fat as a dictionary. It had a woman on the cover with a belly even bigger than Nia’s mother’s. The woman had her hand on her stomach, and she smiled down at it, the same way Nia’s mother did sometimes. The second book, Nia could hold easily in one hand. She flipped through it until she got to the N’s. There was N-I-N-A, but no N-I-A. Part of her had expected her name to appear like magic, even though she’d looked through the book many times since her mother picked it up in the supermarket checkout line.
“What’s that?” Nia had asked.
“A book of names.”
“What kind of names?”
“Baby names.” Her mother flipped through the book while she scooted the cart forward.
“Why do they have a book of baby names?”
“To tell what the names mean. So parents can pick the right one for their baby.” Her mother smiled. “Do you want to help pick a name for your new brother?”
Nia lifted onto her toes and tried to see into the book. “What’s my name mean? Read what mine means.”
Her mother turned pages. She paused. “Sorry, Punkin, your name’s not in here.
Nia fell back onto her heels. “Why not?” It wasn’t fair to be left out of a whole book of names.
“I don’t know. But that’s okay. I already know what yours means.
“You do? What?” How had she never known her name meant something?
“Here, help me with this stuff.”
Nia helped her mother place the items from the cart onto the conveyor belt. “Mommy, what does my name mean?”
Nia’s mother looked at the back of the book then plopped it on top of the groceries. “Nia is Swahili for purpose,” she said.
Swahili? Nia didn’t know that word, but she’d heard the other one. “Purpose? Like when somebody means to do something bad?”
Her mother laughed. “Well, kind of, but—”
Then the cashier asked her mother if she had any coupons and Nia didn’t get the chance to ask what purpose had to do with her. She’d forgotten all about it by the time they got to the car and when she remembered to ask the next day, her mother had said, “Not now, Nia,” because she had a headache. Later, Nia realized she already knew everything she needed to know about purpose anyway.
Her parents had made her move on purpose. Away from her house and her school and her friends. On purpose. She didn’t think her father had lost his job on purpose, but he did stay in his room all day on purpose. And her parents were having a baby on purpose. Even though Nia was fine without one.
She tossed Baby Names back onto the table. Her finger sought the torn cushion. She worked it into the threads, ripping and pulling.
Her father came out at lunchtime.
“What do you want to eat, Punkin?” he asked.
“Punkin” meant he wasn’t mad at her anymore. Nia skipped to the dining table. “Peanut butter and jelly?”
He took the bread from the refrigerator.
“With a face,” she added.
Her father made two sandwiches and left hers open so she could see the eyes, nose, and mouth he’d drawn in jelly. He shook some potato chips onto their plates and they sat at the table in silence until Nia finished her sandwich.
“Can I go swimming, Daddy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Please? Just for a little while?”
“You done with your chips?”
Nia nodded and he slid them back into the bag, then tucked the bag under his arm and carried their plates to the kitchen. Nia went back to the living room. Through the opening in the wall, she could see her father, his head bowed over the sink. But he wasn’t washing the plates; he was just standing there.
Her father glanced up and Nia looked away, embarrassed he’d caught her staring.
“Why don’t you go to the playground for a while? Get some fresh air,” he said.
She didn’t want to go to the playground. Why, when there was never anyone there to play with? Her parents had said she’d make a lot of new friends, but so far, she hadn’t seen many children in the complex. The ones she had seen looked like they were barely in kindergarten.
“I don’t want to go outside,” she said.
“What did I say?”
On her way to the playground, Nia passed a bush with green leaves like tiny feathers. She plucked one, positioned it in the middle of her palm and waved her other hand over it. “Abracadabra.” She ran her forefinger down the center of the leaf, touching it lightly. The leaf curled in on itself, as if alive. Katie, from her old neighborhood, had shown her this trick. Nia wondered if Katie was also outside right now, and if she ever thought about her. She released the leaf and watched it fall to the ground.
The playground was just down from the pool. Nia could still see the apartment and she knew her father could see her from his bedroom window if he were to look out. Before she left, he’d said, “Remember, don’t talk to any strangers. And if a stranger talks to you, you come right back home. Understand?” When he’d said “home,” she’d pictured, not the apartment, but the old house. There, she’d had her own swing set. And it wasn’t a raggedy old thing like the one here.
She sat on the only swing with a seat and leaned back until the sun glared hot and bright on her face. The air smelled of pool water and the sheets her mother put into the dryer to keep the clothes from sticking together. Nia closed her eyes and cut through the air.
When the swing slowed to a stop, she toed the sand and wound herself around and around until the chains wouldn’t twist any further. Then she raised her feet, and eyes closed, spun herself dizzy. She heard laughter and opened her eyes. Two boys were running toward the playground, one tall, the other much shorter. Both were shirtless, their T-shirts tied around their heads like bandanas. The boys stopped at the slide. While the other boy watched from the ground, the tall boy climbed to the top. He stood there, his white chest pooched out like a bird’s.
“I’m King of the Jungle!” he screamed and ran down the slide. His sneakers screeched on the glinting metal. He leaped off when he reached the bottom. Sand sprayed into the air.
He shoved his friend. “Your turn.”
The smaller boy looked up at the slide. A frown stretched his face. “You can go again,” he said.
“Pussy!” The tall boy climbed the ladder. At the top, he beat his chest and yelled like Tarzan. He ran down faster this time. When he got to the bottom, he leaped far enough to land in a crouch at the edge of the swing set, right in front of Nia.
He looked up at her. The black tee shirt tied around his head covered his eyebrows and most of his blonde hair. All she could see of his face were his dark brown eyes, his thin nose, and the straight line of his mouth.
The small boy walked over. He stared at Nia, too, the blue eyes beneath his orange t-shirt/bandana squinting against the sun.
“Who’re you?” the tall boy said as he stood to full height.
Nia said it again, a little louder. Warmth that had nothing to do with the weather spread across her skin. She could tell the tall boy hadn’t come over to make friends.
“Nia,” the tall boy mimicked. “Nia? What kinda dumb name is that?”
Nia looked down at her feet. She didn’t think he really wanted an answer.
“Did you know that’s my swing...Nia?” he said.
She shook her head and stood up.
The tall boy stepped forward. “Where you going, Nia? Thought you wanted to swing?” He grabbed her arm before she could run. His hand was moist. Nia snatched her arm away and her elbow banged against one of the swing’s chains. She blinked back tears. The tall boy put his hands on her shoulders and pressed her back into the seat. He jostled the swing from side to side.
Nia found her voice. “Stop!”
“‘Stop!’” He laughed.
She tried again to get up, but he blocked her way. He gripped the chains with both hands.
The boy smelled like outside. And something else. Like bad milk or cheese left on the counter overnight. She tried to hold them in but hot tears worked their way down her cheeks. The taste of salt pooled in the corners of her mouth.
“Want a push?” He moved behind her and pulled the swing back. Nia dug her feet into the ground.
“Come on,” the other boy said in a small voice, “leave her alone.” He gave Nia a shaky smile.
Nia’s feet dragged through the dirt as the tall boy yanked the swing backward. Her feet left the ground. He pulled it higher. She kicked her legs. “Let go!”
“If you say so.” The swing flew forward. When it returned to him, he gave her back a violent shove and Nia had to tighten her grip on the chains to stay in the seat. His laughter filled the rushing air around her. She wanted to jump off, run away, but she was too high.
The tall boy pushed her again. And again. He pushed, ignoring Nia’s screams. When the swing slowed, she didn’t know at first that he’d stopped pushing because she could still feel the imprint of his hands on her back. The swing came to a rest. Behind her, laughter.
Nia sprung from the seat, but the tall boy was faster. She changed direction, but he cut her off again.
He stared down at her, grinning, a space where a tooth should be.
“Let’s go,” the other boy yelled. Nia had forgotten about him. She looked where’d he’d last been, but he wasn’t there. He’d moved to the edge of the playground.
While she was distracted, the tall boy seized one of her braids and yanked.
“Ow!” On its way to her head, her hand struck his face.
His eyes got smaller as he rubbed his cheek.
“I didn’t mean to,” Nia said. “I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
“You’re gonna pay for that.”
She backed away. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“You did too.” The tall boy made a sound deep within his throat, sucked in his cheeks, and spit. It landed on Nia’s chin, oozed down, and dripped onto her collar. He gave her an ugly smile, then ran laughing from the playground, the small boy close behind.
Nia remained where she stood, the sour stink of his saliva lining her nostrils. When she could, she raised her shirt to blot the spit from her face and used her trembling hands to wipe her eyes and nose. The tears fell again as she ran back to the apartment. Ran for her daddy.
But his door was closed.
In her room, Nia wiped her face again before putting on a clean shirt. She stuffed the dirty one in the hamper then sat on the floor next to the baby’s crib. She pressed an ear against the wall. Nothing. At their old house, her parents’ room had been downstairs, a long way from hers. Here, she could always hear them. The other night their voices had reached through the wall, waking her up.
“So when the baby comes, then what? What are we gonna do then?” her mother had said.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? What do you mean you don’t know? It’s been seven months, Cedrick. We still need things for the baby. Nia needs school clothes.” Her mother’s voice sounded spiky, the way it did when she tried not to yell. “And all these bills. Food.”
“I’m doing the best I can. I can’t force nobody to give me a job, can I?”
“The best you can? Laying up in bed all day is ‘doing the best you can’? You think I don’t know what goes on around here while I’m at work?” Her mother’s voice rose.
Nia had tried to stop listening then. She’d gone back to bed and tugged the comforter over her head.
She did the same now.
When Nia woke up, her Mickey alarm clock said it was 3:02. Her mother would be home soon. She went into the living room and picked up the remote control, but before she could press POWER, she heard a yell. It came from outside. She opened the blinds wide enough to peek out.
The small boy from earlier was alone inside the pool area. He was holding the netted pole Nia had seen the maintenance man use to scoop bugs and leaves from the water. The boy angled it into the pool where it was 5 ft deep, trying to drag a black towel from the middle of the water. Nia leaned closer to the window.
He missed the towel and the pole slipped from his grip and into the pool. He yelled something Nia couldn’t make out. As he leaned down at the edge of the water grabbing for the pole, Nia held her breath, afraid he’d tip in. She hoped he could swim.
This boy wasn’t like his friend. Maybe she could help. She opened the front door and stepped onto the balcony.
“Pat the water! Like this!” Nia yelled, paddling her hands. “You can make it come to you!”
The boy looked around, then up. He spotted Nia.
“He’s not moving anymore!” he hollered, pointing. “He’s not MOVING!”
Nia followed his finger to the water. Then she looked back at him, aware for the first time he no longer had his orange shirt tied around his head. He was wearing it. She looked at the water again. This time, she realized it wasn’t a towel the boy was trying to get. It was a shirt. A black shirt. She knew this because arms jutted from the sleeves, floating just beneath the water’s surface. It was the tall boy.
The boy in the orange shirt hollered and hollered, a jumble of words.
Nia walked back into the apartment and shut the door.
She went down the hall and inched open her parent’s bedroom door. Her father was asleep on his side, knees bent up to his chest, his mouth hanging open. Through the closed, blanketed window, the boy at the pool sounded far away, like a television playing in another room. If the noise was going to wake her father, it would have done so by now. Nia eased the door shut.
In the living room, she flopped onto the couch and turned on the TV.
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