The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “DON’T THREATEN ME WITH LOVE, BABY” is the seventh in a series of short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her series, please see our September 12, 2013 “Letter From the Publisher.”
For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
Ms. Jenkins introduces “DON’T THREATEN ME WITH LOVE, BABY”
“Don’t Threaten Me with Love, Baby,” is a Billie Holiday quote. As a bicultural writer, the idea of displacement and dissonance are never far from my mind and heart. I wanted to explore these themes, combining, as ever, truths about my own life, with stories and myths that arise from the jazz tradition — in this case, from Billie Holiday’s life.
This story is inspired by the life and music of Billie Holiday, and in particular, her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, written by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, and Billie Holiday Story, a BBC documentary.
“Billie Holiday” by Danijel Žeželj
“DON’T THREATEN ME WITH LOVE, BABY”
Chantal Doolittle wasn’t like anybody else she knew. Who else, for example, would stand transfixed before a record player or stereo, still as stone while listening to music — not merely attending to it — her very cells taking in the song, calculating and absorbing. “That girl is special,” Nana Esther always said.
When she was a kid and Motown was the thing, Chan would sing Marvin Gaye’s tunes to her grandmother in their high ceilinged apartment, where, more often than not it was soul music, the harmonizing voices of The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, drifting in from the surrounding windows and disappearing into the sky that was perennially a washed out gray, as if there was an invisible flag always at half mast, hanging outside heaven. From the time she was five or six, all Chan had to do was hear a song once and she would know it. She knew all the Motown tunes word for word, and sang them right on key, perfectly, which is why Nana Esther dubbed her, “my little songbird.”
Of course, there was nothing little about Chantal, but, being her grandmother’s one and only, she was “a little one” to her. Chantal was tall, big for her age, and when she developed as a young woman, busty too. She stood out even before she opened her mouth, due to her attitude. Her nana had taught her to be “confident as a man,” and she had seemingly no fear in her. Chantal’s parents had died when she was barely two, and in an attempt to reverse the shock of destiny, Nana Esther had raised her to believe anything at all was possible, that whatever life shelled out in the way of obstacles or hardship was just temporary on the way to something grander.
You would have thought those two lived at The Ritz, the way they carried on at home, Nana Esther making a big to-do even about drawing drapes, turning everything into a ritual. “Too much sun, darlin’?”
“Not enough, my lady.”
Nana Esther had a blue rose china tea set some relative had dumped on her that she was as proud of as a million dollar inheritance, and every afternoon at three, they had their tea. Nana Esther held her tea cup to pursed lips, pinkie up, and nibbled on saltines like a little mouse, barely making a sound. “Pinkie up, Chan. This is how they do it,” trying to prep Chan for that future time when she would be imbibing with high society.
In reality, the apartment they inhabited, like so many others in Harlem at the time, had plumbing problems the landlord never bothered to fix, and vermin too. Once, Nana Esther nearly passed out after finding a rat napping on the nest of her nighties in a drawer. Chantal got it out, pulling out all the drawers and flipping an antique porcelain lamp as she ran it out of their apartment. A Greek neighbor chased it out of the building with a broom, his family members yelling after him, “Fiye, fiye,” which means, “go away.” Into an alley that rat went, no doubt to continue procreating. There were more rats and roaches in that section of Washington Heights, along 155th street bordering Harlem, than there were people.
In the 60s and 70s, Harlem was not such a pretty place, certainly not as seen through news on the TV and certainly not in the hood, where crime and drugs proliferated. Knowing Chan’s fate might easily follow that of her own daughter and son-in-law, both of whom had succumbed to heroin and died of overdoses, Nana Esther kept a tight rein on Chan, long as she could.
Like the Calathea plants that grew in the living room, Nana Esther herself needed little sunlight and preferred the indoors. Having been afflicted with polio as a youth, she had used the help of a cane, far back as Chan could remember. Sundays, Chan and Nana Esther walked down the street to St. Thomas’s Church arm-in-arm, Nana Esther, only then without a cane, in her big broad-rimmed red hat and black dress with a red and white trim and red flats to match, and Chan in her Sunday best white crinoline dress, with white cotton socks and black patent leather shoes. The two of them went off to church faithfully until one Sunday, when Chan was about 12, and Nana Esther announced she was too old and too tired to “to hear the sermons of a lecher.” It was Father Rob, she was referring to, the same priest that a teenager in their parish, a delicate boy with down-turned eyes, had accused of being a molester.
Anybody who wanted to see Nana Esther came to her. She had “an apartment to keep and a child to raise and that’s enough for anybody my age.” Sundays after service, the church folk came over, bearing steaming dishes of black eyed peas, fried chicken, greens and cornbread, their kids and grandkids in tow so they could fraternize with Chan, who could have cared less about their company. Most of the time, Chan hung in a corner, staring at the brats with that sideways, suspicious glance of hers, putting up with the noise and confusion like some old lady. Once, when she was stretched out on the couch, polishing off a barbequed chicken wing, Leon Fisher threw himself on her and tried to tongue-kiss her. Chan slapped him so hard, the boy wouldn’t stop bawling, so his embarrassed mother and grandmother, grabbed a hold of their dish of half-eaten ham hocks, and took off, shoving Leon out the door first.
That sort of thing didn’t ruffle Nana Esther at all. She had taught Chan to be independent, and a slap is what that boy deserved. She knew Chan wasn’t anti-social, merely willful. Nobody could force her to do anything or tell her what to do. “Long as she stays out of trouble.” But Nana Esther knew better about that too, for pride and strength in a girl or woman always lead to trouble.
As a girl, Chan attended P.S. 186, a fine-looking Renaissance-style building on 145th Street, off Broadway, where one of Nana Esther’s best friends Ruth taught Math, and where Chan was always getting into trouble, being called to the principal’s office for back talking in class, or fighting with boys at recess. Seemed like every other week, she had to stay after school to write do’s and don’ts on the chalkboard. A few years after Chan graduated, P.S. 186 closed down, becoming just another tombstone in Harlem.
For a long time, Nana Esther dreamed of seeing Chan go off to St. Mary’s, dressed in a clean white pressed blouse, plaid jumper, green bow tie and saddle shoes, sure that nuns would have inspired in her a love of books, settled her down, but the truth was, going to private school wouldn’t have made a difference. Chan would have resisted that too, for, all authority ever aims to do is to tell you how to behave and make you buckle to its truth.
Whenever she’d catch Chan just staring out the window, Nana Esther would say, “There’s nothing out there but trouble, with a capital T. I don’t want or need none of it,” as if repeating that enough, she might get the child to believe it too. She knew there would come a time when there would be nothing she could do to protect Chan, nothing at all.
Everything that had to do with Chan — her school photos, drawings, report cards, birth certificate — Nana Esther squirreled away neatly in white boxes that filled most of the space of the bureaus in her boudoir. Those keepsakes were all Nana Esther had to pass on, that and the far out records that sat next to the Emerson HiFi that was Chan’s favorite companion, in the living room.
It was on that Emerson that Nana Esther played for Chan all the music she herself had grown up listening to — the music of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and most especially, the original songbird herself, Lady Day. For a long time, jazz was the magic that kept Chan at home, the glue that kept grandmother and granddaughter together — until another kind of magic came along.
When Chan was 20, trying to turn a fresh page on her life, straightening herself out in a nut farm in Litchfield, she discovered through a friend, that Lady Day had passed away on July 17, 1959, the day before her own birth. Years after she stopped using, after she herself had become a professional, performing on Broadway, she still nurtured the notion, bred in that time, that she herself had been Lady Day in another life.
It wasn’t just that they were both contraltos, had both grown up poor, raised by proud, self-sacrificing women — Billie, by her mother, and Chan, her grandmother. Or that, like Billie, Chan had run into trouble as a young girl, and had whored around, carrying her head high through the losses of loves, men and women alike that had filtered through her life like sand, bearing everything like a trooper — again, like Billie. It was that she felt they shared the same essence, the same heart, and that was good enough for her.
Whenever she told her story in Narcotics Anonymous, Chan always made a point of letting people know her original intention getting on the stuff had never been to escape life or get out of it, but the opposite. Chan had imagined the magic powder would take her deeper into the music she loved, so she could understand it from the inside out, like so many others before her, like the great artists she loved had. She had hoped “the evil dust,” as Nana Esther called it, would lift her up like a great blues or jazz song.
“Far back as I can remember, music was the one thing I knew gave me complete satisfaction and inner calm. I loved Billie Holiday’s tunes, especially, and wanted to sing like her, out of my gut and heart, always en point.” She would look around the room to make sure everybody understood her reference, being then a woman of the world, having been to a white nut farm, where she had acquired a different kind of articulation among rich white folk recovering from mental issues and addiction, like her.
“I took my first snort at 15 out in Harlem. Before gentrification, it was a place that wreaked of style and the great music that was its heritage. Music was everywhere, surmounting even the poverty and problems.
“I was still in junior high when I got my first real exposure outside a bar called Paris Blues. I was just hanging out, you know, too young to be inside, singing along with whatever was sifting out into the street, picking up whatever I could, and this dude with a maroon suit and hat passing by, says to me. ‘Little girl, you sure can sing.’ So I kept it up, showing off a little, knowing I had an audience. He watched me slanty-eyed, nodding his head, and said, ‘You know what all the great singers and musicians do to hear a tune right, to really get in the groove, right?’ I said, “No, sir.” And so he took out this little white packet and started wagging it in front of me, while flashing this big gold-toothed grin at me. So, I snatched that little bag and took off with it. I guess he didn’t figure what a good runner I was too.”
The story of a life is the story of two or three defining incidents, and that was one for Chan, along with the routine of listening to Nana Esther’s jazz records as a kid. Although she did not ingest that bag for months, hiding it under her pillow instead like something to dream on, the things that came only a couple of years after that meeting, the hooking and nastiness, the dimming of song and music itself, rather than its amplification, drove Chan into the deepest darkest despair and to the one place she had never imagined she would land — jail.
Lucky for her, Chan wasn’t found with stuff directly on her when everybody at Cecil’s party in the Village got arrested, or she might have done real time. Oh but the humiliation, standing in a courtroom, facing her nana, the only judge she cared about, in a mini skirt and tank top, no less. Her nana had never even seen her dressed like that either.
For the first time in years, as Nana Esther leaned forward in her seat, right hand with her cane hooked around her wrist, firm on the back of the pew in front of her, as if she might actually keel over, Chan could see how gray and bent her grandmother had gotten. Nana Esther looked down and shook her head sadly, unable or unwilling to believe what had become of her “little songbird.” What would Nana Esther have done, Chan wondered, had she actually known Chan had been one of those whores kicked out of a Grand Central Station bathroom after being caught bird-bathing at a sink? That alone would have surely killed her.
They were all lucky that day — Cecil, to have been caught with less than four ounces on him, and everybody else because Jamal had split with most of the shit before the police got there, and Chantal and the other girl, for not having been arrested and booked on charges before then.
Chan did 30 days in jail, and 30 more of community service, then, following the advice of a social worker, started seeing a shrink. Dr. Freud, Chan called him, asked a lot of silly questions like, what did you dream about last night? — as if that had anything to do with reality. Then her nana got a stroke and Chan went back to living with her, while still finishing up what she called her “double time,” helping out at a soup kitchen.
Chan had left home and school at 15, high on drugs and hungry to experience life, abandoning her grandmother just to keep her from seeing what she was up to, hopping from place to place and sleeping around randomly. Sometimes she sang with buddies on the streets and in parks for a little cash. She had always loved singing. But of course, if you are a young woman on your own, when times get hard, you do what you must to get by, and Chan had experienced everything.
Back in the apartment with her nana, Chan felt like a child again, with all the unspoken longing of an orphan to feel rooted to someone or something, and on top of that the stress of toxins still in her system from years abusing her body. She was back in that place that had once been home, and safe, but she was no longer innocent, no longer the person that had once believed there was only good to be found out there, only adventure.
Chan began to cop again, a little here and there, just to deal with her bad feelings, anxiety about the future and fear of losing the one person she knew truly loved her. Although she was no longer hanging with the druggies, pimps, alkies and hookers that made up her street family, her past life haunted her, even as night after night, she sat with her grandmother, watching episodes of All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Good Times, Nana Esther, drowsy with age and illness, and Chan, in that vague high place that is akin to nowhere. Instead of laughing openly as she used to, all Nana Esther had the energy to do then was tsk-tsk at what was funny, and what was in poor taste. It was all the same now. Their exchanges turned mostly wordless and sad, infused with an awareness of time gone by, and inevitabilities, perhaps. Then, overnight, as if knowing her job with Chan was done and there was no more she could do, Nana Esther passed away in her sleep.
More than loss, at first, Chan felt regret. There had been no time for promises or apologies. What would she have promised anyway — that she would never use again? That would have been false. Unspoken words and long silences had come between them over the years, but lies — never. What was the use of wishing things had turned out differently? The only thing Chan knew now certainly, was that in death, Nana Esther could see her every move. Whatever she had not known about Chan before, she now most certainly knew.
No longer was there any veil of distance or absence between them as there had been when she was a teenager off on her own, messing up. Of course she hadn’t thought then she was running away from anything, only to life. And still, anytime she stood barefoot on a corner in her candy striped bellbottoms and leather vest, panhandling, whenever she sang soul numbers with brothers in a park, or turned out a jazz song, whenever she sat on a stoop or bench gazing at the sky beyond the rooftops of buildings that seemed as far away and unreachable as the sun, all she thought of then was the music she loved and how she might live in it. She had a dream of performing one day at Small’s.
She remembered one time, actually catching a jazz concert at the Apollo. It was 1975 and she was that intense kid craning her neck so far forward to get a close look at the musicians, that it was sore for days. Gerry Wiggins was on piano, Major Holley on bass, and Ed Thigpen, the greatest drummer in the world — at least the greatest she had ever heard — so good he had even played with Oscar Peterson — on drums. A young, brash Rebecca Parris, wearing a cool man’s watch and headband, sang “Since I Fell For You,” and Chan thought then, “I can do better.”
She was only 16, and already knew what she wanted to do, and also that the life she was living would lead nowhere if she lingered in it too long. Had Nana Esther’s spirit been watching over her then, she would have understood what the running was all for. She might still, now that she was everywhere, overseeing and judging.
It was because Chan knew Nana Esther would always be there in death, vigilant over her life, that there was no way Chan could keep using. She would have to stop, and she needed help doing it.
“Dr. Freud,” she said, “Why couldn’t I have been straight when she died? I wanna die.”
“No,” said Dr. Freud, “you don’t want to die. You want to live, you just need help learning how.”
Dr. Freud told her to get away from the Heights, the Village and Harlem. He said he knew of a special rehab that took in young, talented people like her. The woman who ran it was a friend.
“I don’t have much more than a dime,” Chan reminded him.
A while back, one of Johnny Carson’s ex wives, who had spent time there for alcoholism, had bequeathed a scholarship for an “underprivileged person,” what minorities were called then, and Chan fit the bill. Chan could feel Nana Esther smiling down on her even as she rode with Dr. Freud toward Country Hills, away from her life in New York, her old hangouts, friends and habits, so far away it might as well have been another country.
The German psychotherapist who ran Country Hills had studied under Dr. Jung himself and only took in young people in their 20s, most of whom were neurotic — although one or two had experienced psychotic breaks — all of whom had some unique talent. The interview with Chan took place in a posh study, with Dr. Wagner perched stiffly at the edge of a high-backed chair, her blue eyes cool and steady on Chan behind her wire rims. Chan just answered questions, never said a word about singing, so she was more than a little surprised when at the end of the interview, she was asked to move in, for once, without having to sell herself at all.
Country Hills was like no place Chan had ever been to and no institution she had ever heard of, mostly because there were no bars and few rules. The main house, where Dr. Wagner, the females and a nurse lived, was a mansion, pure and simple, with ivy running up its brick walls, a marble entranceway and a view of rolling hills out back. A handful of males and a peer counselor lived in a nice white clapboard house a little further down the road; there was a residence for therapists too; and a garden in which lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and the like grew, and a pond in which you could dip, nights when it got hot. There were no more than a dozen residents at Country Hills, and each was a character.
There was a manic depressive ex-therapist from Baton Rouge, once incredibly wealthy, who had gambled his money away while on a manic high; a suicidal actress/model who hated her beautiful body; a schizophrenic painter who could now only draw like a child; a sculptor who only created phallic shapes; a dyke poet recovering from alcoholism; a reggae drummer who had tried to run his car off a bridge; and a depressed dancer with an eating disorder.
These white, clean-cut grownup kids from well-to-do families looked for the most part like they had never seen daylight, and surely had never suffered physical deprivation; they had all attended or graduated college or some famous arts institute, yet rarely mentioned the world beyond Country Hills. It occurred to Chan they were more likely to associate the word, raid, with a bug spray than a drug bust. None had ever even met a hipster. And here was Chan, with a pick set defiantly in her Afro, carrying inside her a wall of stories and notes, Chan who had never graduated high school, but who knew the ways of the street inside out, who had once even protested the Vietnam war that was short-shifting blacks.
Chan listened to the stories of her peers at Country Hills, intrigued by their vocabulary, and found that their travails about not having enough money or parental attention or friends, distracted her from her own recollections. She did not mention that outside of the world of music, she herself had few memories from her childhood to rely on. She had only ever seen one faded photo of her parents — he, wearing a turtleneck and shades, she, too much mascara — that her grandmother had framed and placed in the living room.Outside of that, Chan did not even have parental voices to remember.
Nana Esther had always been reticent and vague regarding Chan’s parents. Chan only knew they had met in Central Park, and from that moment on, never once separated, and that they had died only weeks apart. At one point Chan had believed her Puerto Rican father was special, having taken her mother’s last name, only to learn later it was customary in Latin America for a family to append the maternal surname at the end. Doolittle was her grandmother’s last name and her mother’s.
How often had Chan stared into her parents’ eyes in that photo, asking them why they had done what they had, departing so soon, abandoning her, trying to pry out of their facades some shred of story linked to her own life? How often had she resented their slight smirks and blank stares that told her nothing? While those at Country Hills with whom she sat in groups had plenty to relay about their growing up years, she herself had no history to share, no place to claim outside of the apartment she had grown up in, nothing but the music — and how would they understand that? She began to wish she herself had suffered the parental punishments, abuse and neglect the others bemoaned in group therapy. At least then she would have had something to say.
It amazed Chan, how fascinated her fellow residents were with themselves, how at home they felt exposing their innermost secrets and lives, personal experiences she herself would have never thought to divulge. That had never been her style, or the style of anybody she knew, although listening took her mind away from guilt feelings about losing the one person in life she had trusted, who was now gone, who she could not dwell on without tears and would therefore never mention, certainly not to a group. Unlike her friends at Country Hills, Chan did not consider tears a public province. They were meant to be kept private, shared only in the company of one’s own solitude.
Lucky for her, the counselors and residents at Country Hills mostly let her have her silence, a silence Chan cultivated and wore like a mask between her real business and that of her peers. For a while, even the two therapists that moderated the group sessions did not pierce it.
They might have had enough to deal with, monitoring Bonita’s inappropriate, often outrageous interjections. While the others ruminated on their pasts, Bonita doodled compulsively, her scraggly hair dangling over her face, now and then bursting out with — “Oh, you’re just saying that,” or, “Liar!” or, “You do like her.” A child’s voice, she was also the chorus and truth teller in the group.
The first man Chan ever saw weep was Vince, who claimed his family had disowned him due to his love affair with an older, married woman, someone his family found abhorrent. But Chan, who watched and listened intently, could tell his wooden mask and folded hands that kept his wrists from going fey were just hiding the obvious — he was gay. More often than not, it was Sheila, the dancer, who wept disconsolately because her mother, a Hollywood actress, had not bothered either to call or visit the entire year Shiela had been at the Hills. The ideal stay at Country Hills, according to Dr. Wagner, was one to three years, which Chan determined early on wasn’t going to happen with her, no way.
The problems of her friends seemed surreal to Chan. Not one had ever seen a person die or even lost a family member. She couldn’t imagine how they would have reacted to her own sagas of abortions and ODs. She had seen so many blue-faced friends foaming at the mouth sprawled on mattresses and bathroom floors with needles sticking out of their arms, legs and feet, she could have wallpapered a room with their names and faces, all of which were impaled in her. No amount of lovely scenery or childlike reminiscences could eradicate that.
The group therapy process, which took place most afternoons in a downstairs salon of the main house, and in a second floor room of the males’ dorm, struck Chan as somewhat absurd, even bizarre. There was for example that session in the large white-painted room in the clapboard house when they were each asked to strike a stack of stripped mattresses with blue foam bats while yelling out the name of an abuser. Chan demured. Most of the folks she had grown up with spent their energy trying to hold back rage lest they kill somebody. But this group couldn’t get their anger out. For a moment or two, Chan debated asking the therapist in charge for a real bat so she could go to town on those mattresses, but in the end decided to indulge instead in a little fantasy of feathers flying and her cohorts laughing up a storm in between spasms of shocked delight. Chan began to feel that what the rest of the world called madness was in fact a privilege of the rich, a lucky few. The poor couldn’t afford it. It took up too much time, too much self-involvement.
Mornings, the residents had duties like cleaning the main house, scraping and painting its walls, preparing meals, and learning how to make lamps in a shed. Chan volunteered in the kitchen and learned how to make vegetarian meals, even fried zucchini blossoms.
So little was expected to heal from life’s wounds. All you have to do is learn to cry and to cook, thought Chan. Well, it was a beginning, something to store inside, along with the music. Chan was never moved to sing while at Country Hills, in between all the things there were to do.
Dr. Wagner, who was very progressive, encouraged the residents to have relationships with one another, so they could explore them in groups. Chan didn’t mind the relationship part, but talk about them? There was no way she was going to do that. But you know the saying — never say never. It’s a given if you stick two addicts in the same bedroom, then send them off together to AA meetings, that they are going to hit on one another. That was Chan’s first mistake — sleeping with Jackie, the poet. Second mistake was sleeping with Paul, the ex-shrink from Florida, and third was thinking that wasn’t going to cause a ruckus in group.
So she slept a couple of times with each of them. Why were they so freaked out to find out about the other? Wasn’t that what they were supposed to do — have sex? Connect? What had each of them thought, that she was going to marry them?
Chan could have let the whole thing slide, put up with Paul going on about how sleeping with Chan had stirred up old feelings of anger about his mother’s betrayal of his father, and Jackie’s complaints about feeling so deceived and used. Who were these people talking about? Certainly not her. But the therapists thought this was a good time to penetrate Chan, get her to account.
They couldn’t get a word out of Chan during sessions, so they started playing games, literally — the smiley faced Mary, who wore a long braid and always dressed in white — maybe so folks would confuse her with Florence Nightingale; and stoic Mark, who, when Chan had only been there three weeks, had taken the actress/model Alice back to her Park Avenue apartment so she could close it down, Mark who had been the one she had asked to make a sandwich for her while she gathered some things into a box in the living room and who found only open windows when he returned, as Alice had leapt 17 stories; Mark, who had stood by, ashen-faced, while an austere and handsome Chilean psychiatrist reported what had happened to the group. All the residents wept and imagined Alice, the most beautiful angel, flying over the skyline to a better destiny somewhere. Dr. Wagner was in Germany and Chan and the others held a candlelight vigil with her when she returned, commemorating the first death that had touched all of them together.
One time, each resident was asked to sit at the center of a circle alone and imagine what kind of fruit they felt like. When it came to Chan’s turn, she said — avocado. The two therapists looked at one another like she had said something significant.
“Is it because an avocado is soft on the outside, but hard inside,” started Mary.
“No,” replied Chan, “it’s because I like the damn fruit.”
“Do you feel threatened, Chan?” inquired Mark.
“No, I don’t feel threatened. Nobody’s trying to sell me drugs or rape me, so, no, I don’t feel threatened. What’s up?”
“Maybe it’s because you come from, well, different roots,” said Mary. Again, the two counselors locked eyes, confirming they were on the verge of something deep and real.
“Maybe it’s because of your upbringing, on the street. Do you feel threatened by love, Chan?”
She felt a hot rush of embarrassment and anger and for once vented what she was thinking — “If I did feel love, I’d be singing.” With that, she stood, pulled her pick out of her back pocket, affixed it into her ‘fro, and strutted to the area outside the kitchen, next to the green garbage bin, the only place you were allowed to smoke, and had herself a few.
She was so pissed off, her eyes burned. It was one thing to watch the charade, and quite another to get caught in its spokes. She knew these professional helpers were well-meaning, and she was “the defiant one,” what they had nicknamed her. But what were they trying to get her to do? And what, really, did she want to change about herself? And how long did she want to sit under the spell of this faux reality and pretty scenery?
A remembrance of difference coursed through her then. She must have been in the 5th grade and came home looking like a sad puppy, her nana said. Chan explained: “I tried to talk about jazz in Current Events class today, and Miss May shut me up, said it’s not current.”
“Not current?! It’s as current as the day, as the skyline, the very street we live on. Why, jazz brought us up. What is that crazy woman talking about? What are they teaching you in school anyway?”
“Two plus two is four, and I already got that.”
It was time to throw open the closet doors, far as jazz was concerned, thought Chan, time to throw them wide open. She realized she was not the only one whose life had been on hold at Country Hills. It was the nature of where they were — an emotional halfway house. She had not been able to sing while there, but Vince had not played drums, and Jackie had not written poems either. They had hung in mid air or months, in limbo, their lives on pause together. But it was time to go now. She was not regrouping with them, but internally, and she was ready to move on.
She had developed her ability to listen at Country Hills, taking in the stories of her peers, a different kind of music, dissonant and unfamiliar. For a while, it had erased everything she knew and believed in.
She was heading back to the city, back to the place of her birth, and her love of music and singing. Now, clean, New York was no longer a city to fear, but a wide, open space filled with notes, like her own interior.
Chan was being taken somewhere. Her eyes fixed on the back of the driver’s head, his long, unruly, curly black hair that brought to mind foreign places she had never even visited, but recalled somehow just from living. Chan watched his head tilt, listening.
A voice, much like Billie’s, was singing, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and her lips followed the song — “but I’m going to do just as I want to anyway, and don’t care just what people say.” She could feel the words rising out of truth and fear and knowing in her. Only then did she realize, it was her own voice returning.
About Arya Jenkins
Arya F. Jenkins is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in journals such as Agave Magazine, Brilliant Corners, Cleaver Magazine, and The Feminist Wire. Her poetry recently received a Pushcart nomination, and her poetry and essays have been included in three anthologies. Her poetry chapbook, JEWEL FIRE, was published by AllBook Books. She writes short stories for Jerry Jazz Musician, which commissioned her to write jazz fiction. Flash fiction is forthcoming in The Feminist Wire; creative nonfiction, in Provincetown Arts Magazine; and poetry, in Blue Heron. Finishing Line Press has also accepted her poetry chapbook, SILENCE HAS A NAME, for publication.