radhiyah ayobami, what we volunteered for

we volunteered to be eighteen and nineteen and twenty with babies; to give up community college and maybe even a four–year college around the way and instead hide our bellies under huge t-shirts or loose dresses and walk the sales floor at macy’s or jcpenney’s on swollen feet, folding shirts and hanging bras on the racks, or maybe ringing the registers at pathmark or c-town, and if we were fortunate, and the store was empty, and the managers were kind, and our bellies were very big, we sometimes got a small stool beneath the register to sit on so customers wouldn’t be offended by seeing our hind parts in a chair while ringing up their broccoli or frozen chicken, and from those hours on our feet or on the small, hidden stool, we saved a little and begged a little and put our layettes together for the babies piece by piece, a couple of fuzzy yellow jumpsuits from the stores where we worked, complete with a ten percent employee discount, a crib from a friend who had a baby the year before, a stroller bought by a grandmother with her social security check, a box of diapers bought in bulk from costco by a mother or aunt with a car—all the women gathered together for us and the new child who was coming.

and maybe at night, these women prayed. the grandmothers said, chile, it’s a dangerous world and here you coming into it. at least in my day we had men that would bring in a little something for the family. my husband, god rest his soul, ain’t had half the education these children did, he couldn’t even read the newspaper, but we sure didn’t starve—even a hound dog brings in a bone.

and the mothers said, i tried to give that girl a good life. i even got savings bonds for college and i mighta had to cash in a few to keep the lights on but there’s a little something in the bank and that girl, she coulda went away to a nice college down south with her own dorm room and she coulda met a nice boy and become a teacher and had summers off to be with her children and nobody ever told me to go to college. as soon as i got out of high school, it was nothing but work, applying for all those city jobs and waiting for them to call back and meanwhile working as a cashier and a home health aide, standing up so long my knees couldn’t even bend and saving up change to buy diapers and taking her to the best preschool even though everybody said it was a waste of money cus she was only three and what did she need to read books for anyway when i could pay the old lady down the street fifty dollars a week to feed her and take her to the park like most mothers did? but i wanted her to have the best, so she went to preschool at three and took tap dancing lessons at four and recited poems in church at five and went to camp at six. when all the other girls on the block stayed at home with their grandmothers playing with barbies all summer long, she was taking swim lessons and going to the zoo even though i had to work overtime to pay for it all and i saw more of her school picture on my desk then i saw her in person, cus when i got home she was asleep or getting ready to sleep and not really wanting to talk about her day and i missed all of her recitals and plays and school awards, i was building a life for her that wasn’t life and death at a desk and then she was a teenager and wanted a weave in her hair and was wearing tight pants and on the phone or out with these girls i didn’t really like and she failed some classes but still graduated high school and i took the day off and there were pictures and cake and then i said, what about that college right down the road? and she said, no, and i said, what about that one a little ways over? and she said, no, and i said, well which one then? and i could already see myself in that sweatshirt that said college mom and she said, none of ‘em, and i said well, get a job then, and my heart was broken, one piece here and the other piece thrown way over somewhere i couldn’t even see because if somebody had told me to go to college—if somebody had said, go on and learn what you want and have a room all your own and go to church on sundays or not and press your clothes every morning or not and live your own life, and don’t have no babies at eighteen and nineteen and twenty and work a job at a little desk for the rest of your life and don’t ever have no days to yourself unless you ask somebody for it and put in for it and get it approved and miss all your children’s firsts cus they always with sitters and grandmamas and then school and then they gone and you didn’t even get to enjoy it—if somebody had said, go to college and study what you want and feel good when that door hit you in the back in the morning, and feel good when you come home at night, and have something besides children to fill your life cus when them wings spread, children is gone and they a disappointment sometimes anyway, so do something for yourself—if i had ever heard that, you couldna stopped me from taking all of my youth. i woulda went to college with nothing but a grocery bag fulla clothes and one pair of shoes. i woulda took that senior trip to canada. i woulda went to florida with that boy who was sweet on me and wanted to move somewhere with no winter—but everybody said, get a job. and then this boy on the corner said, hey girl. and then my baby was crying. and then i was working all the time. and then my child was grown. and then she was working on a cash register. and then some boy said, hey girl. and then she was pregnant. and then i cashed in the college bonds and we bought baby stuff. and now you coming here, child. i hope you have a better time of it than i did. i hope you don’t tell your dream to nobody, just gone and do it, and the hell with who don’t like it.

and us, we walked around pretending everything was regular. we pretended he hadn’t stopped talking to us in our third or fourth month and we were relieved that he had, because whenever he did call, he was sullen and angry and cursed too much and asked nothing about us or the baby but only talked about how he had no money and how was he supposed to tell his mother and he was just about to go to college or trade school or mechanic school or take this trip or buy this car or get an apartment with friends and now this. and because we were feeling sensitive and weren’t sure whether to curse him back or cry or do both, we didn’t remind him how, in the middle of the night, laying in his bed in his room with his mama asleep down the hall, we reminded him, ain’t you gonna put on that thing? and he said, naw, we don’t need that, and we said, but wait, what about the thing? i mean, don’t you have one or something? and he said, nah, don’t worry about it, we don’t need it, we did it without that before and you don’t got no kids, and so we lay back and said, okay, and surrendered to the warmth of his arms, and then we were throwing up in the morning and scared. we were feeling sick all the time and scared. we were scared because on paper we could drive and vote and join the army but we were still kids that lived at home and slept in our childhood beds and had musician posters on our wall and sang along to mtv and spent our whole paychecks on clothes and sneakers and still didn’t buy food for the house or pay towards the electric bill or the gas bill or any rent, and how in the world could we feed another person when we didn’t even feed ourselves?

we worried. we worried about how the child would get from inside to outside. would it hurt? would we die? could we hold our mothers’ hands? would he come? did we want him to come? would we still be able to get our hair done after the baby came or would we have to walk around in headscarves and big old t-shirts like our other friends who always looked sleepy and never came outside anymore unless it was to do something responsible like go to the supermarket or the baby’s doctor appointments? these friends who suddenly had grown woman problems, like was he gonna buy diapers or should we give his name to welfare, should we go down to housing and put our names on the list now or move in with a cousin who just had a baby or go down south with the old relatives and get a job at piggly-wiggly or kroger? or maybe we could rock at home awhile longer with mama or grandmama sighing heavy every time we talked on the phone or smiled at a boy out in the street or came in past nine o’clock and said, i hope you ain’t making no nother one, and a part of us, a womanself part of us that was just coming into bloom but was just a bud in our hearts then, that emerging womanself said (and not out loud either) well ain’t i suppose to make babies? or am i suppose to just work and go to church and dress proper and never go out or drink too much or smile at a man or take a cab over to his house after midnight when i’m tired of sleeping in bed alone and i waited all these years to get grown and found out it wasn’t shit but work, bills and jesus and fuck alla that—i need some love and happiness in life, i’m not gonna be wearing orthopedic shoes at forty, i’m gonna get mine any way i can get it and that’s the truth.

but then came our twenties and thirties, work and babies and the sameness of the days and we volunteered to grow old. we stopped buying lipstick and eyeliner and bought tiny overalls and glow in the dark sneakers from youngworld, we stopped going to salons and did our own hair at home, buying a perm–in–a–box kit from walgreens or hair in plastic packages from stores where they made us leave our bags and strollers up front and followed us down the aisles in bright red smocks asking us if we needed help; we did cornrows and box braids in each other’s hair while watching old favorites like the color purple and coming to america while the kids chased each other through one of our houses and the babies crawled at our feet, and when our hair was done, we admired ourselves in each other’s mirrors, remembering high school and bellies without stretch marks and said, we should go out one night, but we never did.

some of us got jobs. some of us bought cartoon smocks and white pants and went to one of the buildings in one of the neighborhoods all across the country that train poor and immigrant and colored women to take care of the parents and sick relatives of those that weren’t poor and immigrant and colored, and after we went to one of those buildings every day for three or four weeks we came out with a piece of paper that said we were qualified to feed elderly people, wipe their bottoms and turn them in bed, and that’s what some of us did; some of us worked at the post offices and telephone companies and welfare agencies and had weekends off, holidays too, and some bought a car or maybe even a condo and had something in the bank and took vacations to florida or south carolina now and then, but these were the lucky ones—and even these stayed in on saturday nights and spent sunday afternoons at barbecues with girlfriends, old aunties and the children.

some of us forgot magic, like dancing and broadway plays and warm evenings on 34th street in manhattan with lights from all the buildings shining; we forgot what it was to talk on the phone to a man all night long or drink too much, laugh too much and be a little dizzy and a little happy, we didn’t sing along to songs on the radio anymore while taking a really long bath and dreaming about what a place like tahiti looked like; we no longer dreamed of adventure, we dreamed of rest—of how life would be if we didn’t have to get up early every day, or if someone else could worry about the rent. our dreaming was taken over by survival.
some of us became alternative. we emerged ourselves deep into small communities and transitioned from being lekeisha and tamika and ebony to fatimah and afia and zenzele; we hid our hair and skin under long scarves and skirts and birthed babies at home that never went to public school; we drank green juice in the morning instead of tropicana and didn’t let our children watch cartoons or talk about disneyworld; we kept our girls near us in hijabs and long loose dresses sewn by our own hands and had them cooking in the kitchen by ten; we kept our boys in kufis and african shirts and had them taking self-defense classes and talking about the beautiful black wives they would marry by nine; our men were named shaka and amen-ra and muhammad and they would not work for the white man; they turned their old vans and trucks into businesses and they became one or two men moving companies or delivery men or scavenger men or they worked construction or ran a food stand or painted houses and some of them did nothing, and we believed in the men anyway and talked about going to live with the maroons in the blue hills of jamaica, about settling in ethiopia at shashamane or repatriating back to ghana where we could buy land and be free from american cops and laws and drugs and poverty and centuries of slavery; we could become reborn; we could become real people. we didn’t need lipstick and eyeliner and nights out and disneyworld when we were focused on the long vision, and the long vision was that we would finally be free.

we got old waiting for freedom. our hair grew wild and streaked with gray under the scarves. our ankles grew swollen from working the floor at the department stores, or turning the elderly people. our dresses grew faded and we had no money to buy new ones. the children got older and wanted name-brand sneakers and christmas presents and the men began to eye new young women with tattoos and tight jeans. we had volunteered to be righteous and poor and dreaming of ghana and left alone, us and the children. and so it was time to make a new agreement.

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