The Day the Detectives Came
Tiphanie Yanique • Fiction
When the detectives came it was almost midnight and it was cold. First they knocked on the window, but Stela and Fly were making love on the living room floor and could hear nothing but each other. When their apartment door rattled with the fist, Fly asked, “Who’s that?” but softly, into Stela’s ear so that the question could be their private thing. Part of the sensuality. He went to the door after tugging on his pajama pants. “Look through the peephole,” she called from behind the couch. Their hood was gentrified, sure, but this was still Harlem and she knew to be wary. That was her way; cloying or caring. Fly just opened the door.
That was his way.
There were three white men, cops, but only one spoke and that one asked for Maristela Jones. A woman who didn’t exist any longer, since she’d already changed her name to her newer married one—Lovett. Already left that Maristela Jones behind.
Fly should have told them that he didn’t know any Maristela Jones. Or better, that she wasn’t here anymore and, no, he didn’t expect her back. If you want Mrs. Maristela Lovett, well, she’s not available right now, either. Thank you very much. Closed the door, he should have. But it didn’t seem possible to Fly. He tried to think what could be the correct protocol. Should he put his hands up? Or would that be a sudden movement that could get him killed?
All he could see was that there were three white police officers at the door, just like the three white officers who had visited his house when he was a shamefaced teenager. But worse now, these cops were asking for his wife by another man’s name, and his wife was naked behind the couch. Recently, a man’s fiancée had used her cell phone to videotape him dying, killed by a cop. But Stela couldn’t even do that for Fly because where were their cell phones? All this was in his mind. So Fly’s body remained at the door, floating in the moment. Fly, whose name wasn’t really, not officially, Fly, was from the South—Georgia, small town Georgia actually, and it so doesn’t take even a stitch of imagination to see that Fly was a Black man and nothing else for the moment. A fly in the milk of America.
On the couch there was a throw that Fly and Stela kept flung over the back, seemingly for style but really to cover a few stubborn stains. This, Stela tugged from the couch and wrapped around herself. She walked to the bedroom, running her fingers nervously over the face of Fly’s big djembe drum as she passed it, making a soft music, all in plain sight and sounding. “Slow,” she commanded her heart. “Slow,” as she put on a t-shirt and jeans. Fly was here and alive. So it could not be Fly who the officers were here to tell her about. If one of her brothers was hurt or murdered or if one of them had hurt or murdered someone else, her mother would have called. It wouldn’t be right, not right at all, if she lost another family member so soon after Dad. But, shit, where was Steven? He was the man who had given her that last name and now there were three large white men at her door calling her by that name: “Mrs. Jones?” the youngest one asked, when she returned to the living room. He was thick bodied but short. With a round head and thin hair. He looked, she could not help thinking, like Charlie Brown. There’d been a new movie out with the Peanuts but she hadn’t seen it. In the original cartoon Charlie Brown had seemed old, older than the other children, his head balding. Charlie Brown had his old man depression and inability to kick a football. His melancholy mood always ruining the holidays, just like this detective was surely about to do.
Was Stela’s ex-husband dead? Anything was possible. Her Dad was dead. Lots of Black people were. Why not a Black professor in very white Vermont? Was Stela, as ex-wife, still somehow Steven Jones’ next of kin? Dear fucking God, she prayed in her mind. Dear Jesus and Mary. The news had just been news. Now maybe it was life.
Outwardly Stela nodded at the name of her ex-husband and at the Charlie Brown who used it, hating that nodding was the right thing to do. Fly, inexplicably, stepped back into the apartment as she stepped forward into the threshold. Stela wanted to tell these men: You are going to fucking ruin my marriage. Just by making my stupid heart race over my ex-husband’s name. Just by stoking my new husband’s insecurity. But how could she say that when they opened their wallets and showed their detective badges? “Come in,” she said and waited for what they would offer, for what they would take.
“Ma’am, we’re here to ask you about June 28th. Do you remember what happened on June 28th?”
Stela closed her eyes and did not try to remember. She breathed a heavy breath of release. “Oh, Jesus fucking Christ,” she said out loud and wondered if cursing was illegal. “It’s just that I thought someone was hurt.” She turned to look at her husband, the current one, and wondered if Fly could see the guilt on her face. He looked at her blankly, and she knew then that he could see and did. He nodded at her and at the officers, then withdrew to the pillows behind the couch where she’d just been making love with him.
“It’s just,” she looked back at the men who were staring at her. The Charlie Brown now had a file open. “It’s just that I thought maybe it was one of my brothers or something.” The half-lie felt infidelous in her mouth. But still. Thank you, Lord, she prayed silently and quickly.
“Is your brother in trouble?” asked the eldest, a man with greasy hair and a loud Brooklyn accent. He looked not like a detective, but like someone playing a detective on TV. Charlie Brown and the TV detective. The third one, tall with porcupine hair, hadn’t spoken yet.
“No,” Stela started, trying to say something that would ground her. Trying to call the name of a man who would not threaten Fly. “My younger brother, Everett, he’s in the Virgin Islands. At the university. It’s just that he’s my baby brother. It’s just…” She shook her head and smiled, hoping the smile looked real. Was this real? Had she just been making love with her husband? “I’m sorry. What you need again?” Then she welcomed them in.
They stood around the coffee table, her biology textbooks laid out in a jumble. Fly’s flute on top of this jumble like nothing more than a child’s pretend instrument. There was her one book of labyrinths teetering on the edge. And a hard cover of Invisible Man on the floor. The tallest cop nudged this last one with the toe of his shiny shoe. Pushed it under the table, like it was evidence of something he wanted covered up. Charlie Brown cleared his throat. “Do you remember going into the Bloomingdale’s on June 28th?”
Stela shook her head. She knew that it was almost midnight but it was only now registering to her that even if this wasn’t about her brothers or her ex-husband, that it must still be something bad. She registered more clearly just that Fly was strangely behind the couch keeping company with the small djembe she’d been tapping with her toe before the knock. Was Fly scared? Did Stela want him back there, safe from the officers? Was she safe? Either way, she was facing these three white cops on her own.
“Ma’am. We have video of you stealing a $20 lipstick.”
“Listen, we know you did it. If you just admit it, it will be easier for us all.” That was the TV detective, mean and loud.
She could feel herself blinking and she knew from the teacher training for managing plagiarizing students that she should not be fucking blinking. Blinking was a sign of lying. She shook her head to clear her brain, she tried to steady her voice so her foreign-sounding Caribbean accent didn’t edge in, so her usual cursing didn’t come bursting through. “Sorry, what are you talking about?”
“So you’re saying you were not at Bloomingdale’s on June 28th?” The Charlie Brown spoke in an easy voice as though it was really a question. She knew it wasn’t really a question. She shook her head again. It felt as though something was pinched behind her eyes.
“I don’t remember. I had no reason to be there. I don’t remember.” She turned around the room and reached her hand out to Fly. “Baby, I need you over here.” It was as if Fly hadn’t heard any of what was happening. He got up, his face as blank as before, and stood there where her hand had reached. She pulled him to her and tried to hold onto him.
“Don’t give us a hard time,” started the tallest one in a deep impatient tone. This was the first thing he’d said. Each of these fuckers, Stela thought, were big in a different way: stout, loud, tall. “You don’t think we’d come all the way to stinking Harlem for a lipstick if we didn’t know you did it, do you?” He was too tall for his suit jacket, which ended short of his wrists. He was the only one who didn’t seem like a caricature and for that he was the most frightening. Fly was tall, 6 feet about, but this man was taller.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know.” Stela could feel her husband’s arm in her grip. It felt loose. Not a muscle clenched. She looked at him, trying to see if he could tell her something. Explain what really was. But he was just staring at the men.
Fly stared at the men. He was pretty sure now that this is what you were supposed to do. Keep calm and don’t blink and don’t show fear. Isn’t that what his father had taught him about interacting with the police? Be respectful. But wait. What did his father know, crazy as he was? Being respectful might translate as being aggressive. Fly could tell that Stela was afraid. He wished she would stop acting afraid. Afraid could look dangerous too. It all, somehow, translated that way. She was acting as though she’d stolen a diamond from Tiffany’s. As though she was a lying thief for sure.
But there was something to the danger. Has Fly ever felt dangerous? It was a strong feeling. Too respectful might look like subdued, maybe. Or submissive. He didn’t like those words. They were going to consider him aggressive, tall and brown as he was, no matter what he did. He might as well get the benefit of that feeling. And yes, there it was. A calmness. A steadiness. It felt like manhood.
Carefully, without shifting his facial muscles, Fly thought again about the marijuana he’d just slid into the pages of an Invisible Man paperback. He’d bent the book in half and tucked it into the body of the small djembe drum. This was the copy of Invisible Man with only eyes on the cover. This book now making invisible the thing Fly was sure these cops had come for. He calculated how much bud it really was. Was it enough to be a misdemeanor or a felony? The laws were changing so swiftly. Was it enough to get him arrested right here? To get him jail time? Would Stela, maybe, get a thrill out of having a thug for a husband? A husband with a record? But man, oh, man, what about the baby?
The chunky balding cop, who seemed to be the one in charge, turned to Fly now. “We’re taking her to the station either way. Sorry—you can’t come.”
Fly remained silent for another moment. He wasn’t sure if he had heard the white man right. He replayed the sentences in his head. So. Wait. The cops didn’t see him as the criminal here at all? With his eyes on the man’s receding forehead Fly stood up straight, to his full height, and responded. “But I’m her husband. And she’s pregnant.” The officers flicked a glance from Stela’s stomach to each other. Fly felt the power shift his way. “I’m not letting her go out with three strangers at midnight by herself.” Fly said this firmly. Manly as muscle.
But the older man just laughed a little. A giggle almost. “It doesn’t matter if you’re her mother,” he said to Fly, almost shouting. “It’s against policy. And she’s not going with strangers. She’s being escorted by the NYPD. Here’s the address. You can meet us there.” He flicked Fly a business card. “Get some shoes on,” the officer said in Stela’s direction. No, it didn’t matter that she was pregnant. “We’re tired of waiting.”
Fly was confused, though. He’d been firm. He’d been clear. And now the mean tall one seemed to watch Stela’s ass as she turned. Was Fly imagining that? Was this guy going to vote for Trump next month? Was this racism? Fly was taller than this man, but he felt himself slouching again for the man’s benefit. He hated himself for that little curling motion. Hated Maristela for it, to be real. So Fly held the card and looked down at it but couldn’t, for some reason, read it. It looked blurry, as though underwater in his hand.
Fly felt Stela let go of him as she went to find her shoes. She was holding her small belly when she went, but he tried not to think about that anymore. With her gone he faced the men. They didn’t seem afraid of him at all. “A lipstick?” Fly snarled at the three white men. “Three of you come up here for a cheap lipstick at almost midnight?”
“If it was your money,” the loud detective began, “you’d want it, right?” He stepped forward as though perhaps he was the one in charge. Perhaps he had the other two in training. He had a thick accent that seemed to Fly’s ears to be native. Fly couldn’t place it exactly, Brooklyn or the Bronx, except to feel as though this man knew more than he did. This white man from New York had a say, a run of the place, that Black Fly from Elwood, Georgia, didn’t. Couldn’t.
Stela came out in flip-flops and a jacket. She looked sick, as though she’d been throwing up. Fly wanted her to look strong.
“If that cheap jacket she’s wearing was stolen, you’d want it back, right?” continued the officer, his voice bounding so loudly. Just loud enough for maybe a neighbor walking down the hall to hear. “If those cheap pants you’re wearing were stolen,” the officer pressed on, “you’d want your bucks back, right?” Fly’s pants, which were pajama pants, were not cheap. They were silk, and Stela had bought them for him, a set, as a gift. He wanted to tell the cop this but instead he finally and fully noted that the detectives didn’t seem to smell the marijuana in the room. They weren’t here for him at all. They were here entirely for Maristela.
Stela came to him and took his hand. She gripped it hard but he didn’t grip back.
“If it was your cheap lipstick,” the cop said now, looking Fly right in the eyes. “I mean if it was your favorite red lipstick you’d want it back, right man?” The cop, now smirking, kept looking Fly in the face. A dare. But Fly looked down at the card in his hand and tried again to make out what it said. Could he even read anymore? He tried to focus so his fear would turn to calm. Or turn to rage, why not? Even the cop was calling him out as a punk, suggesting he might own a lipstick. But Fly was straight afraid—he couldn’t find the fight.
“I can tell she did it,” the real New Yorker was heard saying as they walked Stela down the stairs. “I can tell by the way they’re both acting.”
The car seemed like a regular car, though, just once during the ride, the driver, the tall mean one, flashed on the lights that were the colors of the American flag. The car in front of them had its turn signal on in the wrong lane. They didn’t pull the car over. They weren’t small time traffic cops. They just wanted the guy out of their way. Otherwise, it was just a regular car—a detective car in disguise. They went up and around and looping, as though confusing her was one of their tactics. Stela was confused. She could not fucking believe she was in the back of a cop car. She began to pray the Hail Mary, but she was mis-remembering it. Could it be that you actually said Mary’s name again and again? Stela was getting lost in that, too.
Through all the winding the detectives talked to each other. When they talked about visiting hospitals they called the victims “mine.” They claimed the beat-up woman from her boyfriend. Claimed the raped girl from her perpetrator father. “Mine,” they said. “Mine had a broken shoulder blade. If I hadn’t gone to the desk I would never have known mine was even alive.” They hadn’t cuffed Stela, but in the back seat she sat on her hands anyway. She was cold. It took sometime for her to realize that her feet were freezing. She was only wearing the flip-flops and it was a cold October night.
The young one, who made her think of melancholy Charlie Brown, was sitting beside her in the back seat and she could see now that he was very large, despite being short. He wasn’t in charge at all. Here he was, shunned in the back with her. Maybe in training. She felt bad that he looked uncomfortable. She tried to give him a comforting look. “We could have handcuffed you,” he said to her when she met his gaze, “but we didn’t want to cuff a pregnant woman.”
Was this shit for real? Stela wasn’t sure if she could keep from crying. For the first time, she tried to think, really think about a lipstick from Bloomingdale’s. But she couldn’t recall being there. Didn’t know why she would be in the make-up section at all, since she didn’t wear the stuff. Not since leaving Steven Jones. Not since her father died. “Can’t I just give you the $20?” she said quietly to the man beside her. From the passenger’s seat the TV cop slapped the dashboard as though he’d nailed her. “If you didn’t do it, you would never just give up the money.”
She looked out of the window and watched the city people, alive and free, on the street. Men hunched over, lost in their coats. Women strutting in colored stockings and fedora hats. A fucking lipstick? It just wasn’t like her. Not her style, really. Not since New York, not since Fly.
At the station, the Charlie Brown walked her up stairs and down stairs and around corners. She’d never find her way out. Cops smiled at each other. Made jokes about how much coffee they’d drank. Didn’t seem to even realize Stela was there. Stela and the cop walked up and around and down until he opened a door and told her to wait in there. In there. And then she saw the door closed and heard him lock the bolt. The room had the one locked door. The room had no windows.
Stela sat there unbelieving. This fuckery was happening. People really did go to jail for stealing lipstick. No, that was bullshit. It was 1 a.m. She was sleeping. She must be. She was pregnant. That was the truth. She was a high school biology teacher. Yes. She was married. Good. No way that could all add up to being in jail. No, nah, nope. Her father would kill her. Would have killed her. But he was dead. And Mermaid? Mermaid would have just shaken her head, then held Stela while she cried. But Mermaid was dead, too.
The door opened and the Charlie Brown offered Stela a cup of water, which she wanted but didn’t want him know she wanted. These people were her enemies. These people had dragged her, pregnant and all, out of her house at midnight. She had to teach in the morning. How long would she be here? What would she tell her principal? What if she was still here, locked up, when it was time for her and Fly to go on their honeymoon in a few weeks? What if she was in jail when the baby was due? These police people had called her another man’s name and she had known that it still meant her, maybe always would. “No water, please. But can I get something to draw with? A piece of paper, pencil?”
“We don’t have that here,” the cop said, and glanced at her belly. “We have water.” She took the glass of water but waited for him to leave before she drank it. Instantly, she had to pee. She wondered if this is why he had offered water. So that she would have to pee and then be uncomfortable when asked questions. Be on edge. She passed 10 minutes just imagining herself banging on the door, begging for the bathroom while Charlie Brown snickered on the outside. She imagined herself squatting in the corner with the detectives watching and jeering. She was pregnant, and was beginning to look it. She always had to pee. But that would be the very worst thing. A married pregnant high school teacher peeing in the corner of a jail.
Fly had taken two trains to get here. On a nice day he might run from their place to this same area. But it was a colder than a normal October night and maybe too late or too early for a jog. Walking now, he could notice the Get Out the Vote stickers on electricity poles. A few Make America Great Again signs in small shop windows, where he never would have imagined he’d find people who wanted to go back to some long ago America that was great for…who? White dudes? And in the apartments above those he saw a few stickers, here and there, with a big H and an arrow cutting through it—like moving forward was only possible through the H. They were going in different directions, those two.
So Obama was on the way out. No more Black man in the white house. And now how would it look, Black Fly showing up to jail in sweats and sweating when it was nearly winter? He’d tucked a clean paperback copy of Invisible Man into the hand-warming pocket of his sweatshirt. This copy had only the title and the author’s name on the cover. No man imaged at all, though somehow it felt more manly that way. When the cops had left with Stela, Fly had wanted to beat a drum or strum the tiny hand piano, but he couldn’t find his way to them in his mind. The Ellison would have to do.
Fly could have splurged for a yellow cab, but those still didn’t voluntarily come to Harlem and certainly not in this darkness. He could use the app to get a green cab or even a black, but Stela hadn’t yet shown him how to do that on the phone she’d bought him. And he hated the idea of apps, anyway. He’d delayed so long even getting a cell phone. Given in only because he’d started to see it as a survival tool. The Man could track him but Fly could also track the Man. Not that he’d used it. Fly hadn’t even really looked for the phone when the cops came. Not that filming had saved anyone anyhow.
Without knowing how else to get to the station, Fly took one winding subway train, waited a while for the transfer, took another train. Once on the street, he turned himself around and around trying to find his way. He went up streets and down streets and around buildings. This midtown wasn’t like Harlem at night. There were some young drunks but no old crackheads. There was techno music and boys in bright colors. Harlem at this time would be quiet, until there was a fight, then that would be loud. Then the sirens might or might not come.
When Fly finally walked into the midtown police station, he realized that he had never walked into a police station. This was a Black male statistic that he had avoided all his years. But here he was. Because of his wife. Maristela. He sat down in the front room that had some chairs on one end and a huge desk with the cop behind it on the other end. A big space spread between like a kind of protection. He sat, the cop’s tall desk in his profile, thinking that someone would come to him. How can I help you, they would ask. It was like when he went to the jewelers to ask about Stela’s engagement ring. He had walked in and waited and the woman at the front had come and had known exactly what he wanted: You’re getting married! she had exclaimed it like she was making it happen, and then she had taken him back to the jeweler.
Now Fly sat there in the station thinking that he just needed to think. No one from behind the tall cop desk asked him what he needed, what he wanted. He needed and wanted so many things, if they would just ask they would know. He sat there and could not, Jesus, could not help imagining Stela behind longitudinal bars. He was wearing his same silk pajama pants. The expensive ones. And the hooded fleece jacket that he had slipped off his head when he walked in the station for fear that he would look like a criminal. They’d killed a kid and blamed the hoodie. That shooter getting off Dred-Scott-free. But then again here in his silk pajama pants, Fly might be at home. He might actually be in bed. This might all be a dream. A nightmare.
His new phone pulsed in his pants. He touched it, felt its smooth metal hardness, like a weapon. He waited until the phone stopped—probably his mom. Instead of pulling it out, he pulled out the Ellison, opened to the fat center and stared at the words. He read the words. “What is the race coming to?” “Whiskey.” “Young Negroes.” “Support.” “Control.” “Afraid.” He closed the book and looked out at his nightmare. He should have brought a Bible, he knew that now.
He watched other detectives bring in different kinds of women. The cold air bursting in each time. These were women who Fly might give spare change to, or women he would cross the street to avoid. A woman with a scarred face, blond hair straight and dry as straw, came in struggling with the officers. Despite himself, Fly had a fierce desire to whisper to this woman as she passed: “Control yourself! Get yourself under control and they won’t hurt you.” A skinny almond-skinned woman was escorted in. She was coiffed, made-up like a model. Her face haughty, but with tears streaking it. “Don’t be afraid,” he said to her in his mind. “Don’t be afraid and it will be okay.” He saw the women again and again. They all seemed to be seeing him, seeing him seeing them. Was it what he felt? That they all seemed to be looking to him for help? Were they locking eyes with him, looking for a sign from him? Was this what it felt like for his father? The voices in Dad’s head? Was Fly, right now, earning his inheritance? Finally losing his mind?
Fly wished he had a song for them. A hymn. A gospel. He shook his head, unable to give them the words and the music they needed. You’ll have your woman leader, president, soon enough, he wanted to say—but maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe it wouldn’t be so, would never be soon enough. More and more women he saw, filling the jail in his mind. Freaking him out, to be straight. Finally, after almost an hour of this Fly shivered himself into action. He was not dreaming; not even having a graciously terminal nightmare. He stood up and went to the counter. “I need to see my wife.” The desk was up high like pharmacy shelves used to be. He had to stand straight, had to lift his chin to look the officer in the eye. Still, the officer side of the desk was elevated high enough so that the cop could look down at Fly.
And when that man looked down on him and asked for his wife’s name Fly had to use “Jones.” The ex-husband’s name. Flipping Doctor Steven Jones.
But they couldn’t find her. It had been two hours since she left the apartment but now they couldn’t find her. Fly’s first thought was that she had broken out of the jail, but this was absurd. His second thought was that he had come to the wrong station. He dug into his pockets trying to find the business card with the address. He turned to pat himself down. A door across the waiting room opened and the younger detective who had been in his house and used another’s man’s name for Maristela, now led Fly’s own wife out and into another room. Stela’s hands were behind her back as though bound. He could have called out, but it suddenly felt as though she did not belong to him at all. The two of them, Stela and that man, turned down a corridor.
“That was her,” Fly said quietly to the cop at the desk. “That was her who just went down there.”
“Oh. She’s going to get printed. It’ll just be a minute. Then you can go see her. A minute or so.”
It was another hour. When she passed back into the room and out again Fly pretended he didn’t see her. He didn’t want to meet her eyes. Not yet. Maybe not at all. Maybe never.
When Fly was finally let into her little room he was offered the water also, and Stela wanted to tell him not to accept, but Fly said yes and swallowed the water in one gulp. He leaned against the wall and stared at the ceiling. Stela stared at him. He looked exhausted, he looked, frankly, worse than she felt. And she felt despondent. She wanted to hold him and protect him from this. From her.
She thought of the time they had been together in a room this small before. It had been a changing room in, of all places, the very Bloomingdale’s of the lipstick. That day she and Fly had been looking for bridesmaid’s dresses and groomsmen suits that they ended up never needing. Shotgun—that was the kind of wedding they’d had instead. But the Bloomingdale’s had a large fancy changing room, probably a handicapped one. She’d kneeled to him and pulled his pants down. Sucked on him until he came in her mouth. That had been illegal. Sex in a changing room was illegal. Public sex in a handicap changing room? That must be double illegal.
Perhaps that was really what this was all about. That one time, months ago, before they’d known she was pregnant, before her father died, when they’d done that crazy lusty thing. Perhaps there had been cameras. Perhaps “lipstick” was just a metaphor.
Stela reached out for Fly’s hand. Fly let her hold his hand. Stela felt his hand slack in her own. Fly thought of all the women downstairs. Thought of his wife, the mother of his unborn child, and those women. Stela thought of driving in the car alone with the three white men.
No one ever brought her paper or pencil. But she didn’t want to draw after all. She just wanted to write out her lesson plans for tomorrow, for today actually. But still, she traced a design with her finger. Over and over again in the dusty film of the plastic table. A maze. No, a labyrinth. And at the center, not the heart of Jesus, as she’d been taught in Catholic school, but the mouth of a whale—she’d taught herself that.
By the end it was five in the morning. “Good people do bad things,” the Charlie Brown said, “but Bloomie’s is cracking down on…” there was a pause, “…the people.” He’d let her go but she’d have to report to court. She’d get something in the mail telling her when. She and Fly walked out of the station together but then Fly put money for the subway in Stela’s hand and walked ahead. She felt like a whore and hugged herself tightly to bear the cold. When they boarded the train she tried to press against him, but he didn’t release his arm to put it around her. He closed his eyes and folded his arms—his dead pharaoh style. She needed him to give the care and the cloying. But it wasn’t coming.
Fly closed his eyes in the near-empty subway car. He pressed his palms against his chest, his Invisible Man in the sweatshirt pocket was light on his belly. He pressed his palms and imagined slapping Stela in the face. Here was the fight in him now. He was slapping her so hard she ricocheted around the subway car. Slapped her and slapped her—in his mind. A lipstick, Maristela! He could have bought that for her. But no, no, he couldn’t. The engagement ring he’d bought her was on his maxed credit card, the payment for that now came out of their joint account. After his half of the rent, and his mid-month grocery contribution, did he really have a spare 20 for fancy lipstick? No.
Especially not now that he wasn’t sure if they’d let him back into his Master’s program. He’d made a deal with the department chair. He would make his and Stela’s South African honeymoon a research trip. Upon return, he would hand in a first chapter of his thesis. Easy. If he could get that done, they would let him register for spring classes. Red, he remembered the cruel cop had said to spur him. Red lipstick. The ex-husband had liked that kind of thing, Fly knew. He’d seen Stela’s old wedding picture. Seen how stained her mouth was with that loose-woman paint.
Now in his mind Fly slapped the color off Stela’s mouth. He tried to get the satisfaction of it by letting it run its course in his mind. He had never imagined doing such a bad thing before. But now he understood. Understood that he was capable of it. Lord, help him.
Stela pressed her whole body against her husband. Gave that to him. He needed it now, didn’t he? He was ashamed of her? Stela didn’t want to think about June 28th. Not with her husband ignoring her. Sitting there beside her and sending all the signals that he was rejecting her, didn’t even want her loving. But that was exactly why she couldn’t help but think of June 28th. What had happened in June? The cop had kept asking her. Nothing. Nothing at all.
Or rather, in June her father had died. He’d been sick her whole life, always something small and silly ailing him: an ingrown toenail that mysteriously turned to gout, a cold that twisted into the flu that bloomed into bronchitis. Until it wasn’t small at all. A urinary tract infection had turned into the Big C. Cancer. Stela had been her father’s favorite and he had been hers. She’d left June 29th to make it home in time to help her mother with the funeral planning and all that paperwork. The funeral had been awful, of course, but nice too. Dad was a vet after all. The Army didn’t do much right, but they knew how to do a funeral. Lots of practice, Stela guessed. But what had Stela done the day before she left? June 28th. She’d prepared herself to go, that’s fucking what. That was all. She saw herself packing. She saw herself crying alone on the sofa. Fly still at school. She saw herself remembering her cell phone and it’s charger. Simple, lonely things.
Now on the train after leaving jail, actual jail, she decided to stop thinking about it. She couldn’t think straight anyway. How could she think about lipstick she didn’t even wear anymore, when her brand new husband was here on the subway, his body a board beside her? She thought only of his slack hand in hers at the station. His loose arm in hers at their house. His throwing the money in her face.
At home he went to take a shower, where he sang a low deep something without words into the jets of water. She went to the sink and washed herself standing there—she wanted to pray but she was too pissed off.
It was 12 hours before Stela and Fly spoke to each other. On the subway after teaching a full day, the way home was now a long awful journey. She was dead on her feet because she hadn’t slept that night, already narcoleptic because of the pregnancy anyway. She stepped off the train and felt the panic in her chest—like the outside air had punched her. But really it was a panic that Fly would not be there when she opened the door. That he would have moved out while she was at work. Or that they would divorce, but like so many dysfunctional ex-couples in New York, they would stay living together for months, years, until each found an affordable alternative. He would call off the honeymoon, like how he’d called off the wedding before they’d found out she was pregnant. Fly would fly. Committing wasn’t his way. She and the baby had just forced him into marriage—good American Southern boy that he was.
But now what would they do with the plane tickets to South Africa? They shouldn’t have gotten married. They shouldn’t be keeping the baby. It was so much work, this fucking relationship. She was no good for him. She could barely put up with herself. He was a gentle soft man. He was no good for her either. She needed someone who could take care of her for a change. Fly couldn’t even stand firm with her in the face of trouble. Couldn’t even hold her on the train ride home.
She wondered how much an abortion would cost, if her mother might still pay. She wondered if she was too far into the pregnancy to have one. If she could go home and if her mother would be there. She surprised herself by thinking of the Pope, who she’d completely avoided when he was in New York. Hadn’t gone to see his talk, hadn’t turned on the news. At her public school most people avoided even mentioning the pontiff ’s visit, for fear of breaking policy. But her avoidance was a kind of obsession then, which she understood now was because she still had something Catholic at her core. But for all his liberal ways, the Pope was still anti every choice having to do with vaginas and wombs. Nice man, but he’d never been pregnant. Fuck him, too, then, she thought. Oh, that was a sin for sure. Cursing the Pope. Poor sinful Stela.
From the subway stop Stela took a series of detours to get home. She was exhausted and her back hurt but she zipped up her coat and walked passed the bodega where she knew Fly got his roller paper for his marijuana. Her mind kept wandering on its own. Wandering to the Pope and to her mother. She walked past the pick-up truck that during the summer was a fruit stand. The dark-skinned Dominican man calling out smilingly: papaya, papaya, fresh papaya. Right now the truck was just parked there. Selling nothing. Calling nothing. When Stela saw that she was close to their apartment building, she veered away again. She passed the deli that didn’t sell sandwiches but always had stale M&Ms. Her mind wandering to Steven Jonesand to Johann Scott—men she could have been with instead of Fly. She passed the new pizza place owned by two Nigerian women with British accents. Steven and Johann—they’d been caregivers in their own way. Steven, a patronizing professor, her, a high school teacher. Johann with his white boy assumptiveness; Stela, always hopeful but unsure. But they’d have held her hand on the subway, wouldn’t they? She passed the Chinese restaurant where you had to be buzzed in and still there was bulletproof glass between you and the couple you ordered from.
When finally Stela walked into their apartment building she’d worked herself up into a misty sweat despite the cool afternoon. She knew she and Fly were doomed as the devil. She was ready to fight, make Fly move out. Make him pay her back for the hotel room in Johannesburg that she’d booked for them already.
They’d been married just about a month. A Catholic annulment, which she knew about, would be fucking expensive but otherwise easy. Stela was sure of it. Easier with this new nice Pope. The Bishop might frown at her, but what did his celibate-self know about the risks of romance? Maybe she’d be a single mother and she’d make Earl Lovett, Fly’s government name, pay for child support even if he starved.
Their mothers would approve a divorce. His mother had officiated their small, harried wedding. And what a performance that woman gave, her face looking out at the assembled guests and beaming, but never once looking Stela in the eye. The woman waiting so damn long when she asked if anyone want to speak now, right now, or forever hold their peace. And the gift his mother had given! A pressure cooker! Fucking hell. Mrs. Lovett didn’t know Stela. Didn’t like Stela. Didn’t think her son was ready for marriage at all. And, look, maybe she was right. And Stela’s mom? Pleased? Stela’s mother still held a fucking torch for Dr. Steven Jones. She hoped Stela would reveal that the baby in her belly was actually Steven’s.
At their door Stela tried to breathe in a deep breath. That’s when she heard Fly’s big djembe drum through the door. He was drumming something soft and gentle. It sounded tired, like maybe he was just winding down from a loud and wild session. She stood there with the key at the lock. She stood, unmoving, until the music stopped and her body cooled. She didn’t want to open the door to that seduction.
So, it had turned out that she was screwed up. Worse than him, maybe. Now that fuckup was a public fuckup, though now, thank God, neither of them had videotaped it. She could have lost her job. Might still. But it still wasn’t like his messes. His magical thinking, his mood swings. His hesitation with all institutions—religious, educational, marital. His weekly street corner transactions. His breakfast spliff. His ridiculous porno collection. He said he’d thrown the magazines all out, but so what? Now the porn was worse, hard core even. Stela could tell just by the advertisements that always popped up on their computer—watch black dicks in mulatress pussies, or—peek at primitive African girl learning to suck her chief ’s cock. Fly didn’t know how to clear the computer’s cache. So Stela always had the okey-doke on him. She knew stuff his mother could deny.
When Stela finally opened the door, Fly was quiet on the couch, with the drum beside him like a friend, and Black Studies books taking up all the space that he and the drum were not. Was he actually studying? There was a book in his lap and a thick fluorescent highlighter in his hand. She stared at him. She was grateful that he was here, but confused now by her gratefulness. He pushed his book aside, capped his highlighter and walked up to her and kissed her on the forehead. She stood still to receive it. Her bags still in her hand. Her coat still on her back.
Fly whispered into Stela’s temple as he held her at the threshold. His body was damp from the drumming and he felt how wet his mouth was on her cold skin. He’d just been banging away at his drum, getting the frustration out. Waiting for her and the talk they’d have to have. He hadn’t thought it would be the end, not at all, but after seeing her face and holding her body, the tiny idea of this rose in him like the old moon. An insignificant light in an expanding night sky. They’d only been married a month, for mercy’s sake. But she was a cheat and a klepto; he was a perv and a pothead. They were stereotypes after all. Low down. They weren’t good for anybody but Jesus.
Inside Stela’s body had grown quiet as though her blood had stopped rushing. She hadn’t yet felt the baby move, but then there was something. A bubble, a little rush, like a goldfish flashing by. It could be the baby. But Stela was too cold, and so tired that dead was the best modifier. The baby, too, then. Dead together with Dad and Mermaid. Maybe this thing inside wasn’t a goldfish. Maybe a mermaid. Stela’s own Mermaid had mated for life. But not everyone was meant for that. “We’re getting divorced,” Stela said out loud now, her eyes closed because Fly’s face was against hers. “I can’t believe it.”
“Maybe don’t believe it,” he said, quickly and suddenly as though he was trying to erase something. “Maybe we don’t have to believe that any of this ever happened.”
“Fucking hell,” she said, with her living mouth. “It did happen. All of it did.”