Getting By

From The Star Side of Bird Hill

Dionne hated most things about Barbados, especially the weather. She disliked the cool damp of the mornings, followed by the unforgiving heat and insistent afternoon rains that drowned any hopes of going outside. During the long, wet days when she was forced to keep watch over her sister, Dionne felt like one of the sick and shut- in from the church bulletin. Maybe this is what growing old was like, she thought. Maybe the world gets smaller and smaller until there’s nothing but the walls around you to show you where you end and the rest of the world begins.

The weather was just one thing on a long list of gripes that Dionne kept in her head, and occasionally wrote in the margins of the fashion magazines she’d brought with her from Brooklyn. Chief among her complaints was that there was nothing to do to entertain herself. The days just seemed to drag on and on. She sometimes looked up at the clock thinking an hour must have passed, when in fact it had only been a few minutes. And while she always resented the long list of things she had to do back in Brooklyn — prodding her mother, Avril, to get up and bathe each day, making sure Phaedra was dressed and her hair decently combed, cooking dinner and packing lunches for herself and her sister — in Barbados she felt like she had been demoted back to childhood, asked to put on a pair of too- small shoes by being responsible only for herself.

Hyacinth believed that idle hands were the devil’s playground, and so she gave the girls chores to do and signed them up for not one but two sessions of Vacation Bible School. Still, Dionne felt a restlessness welling up in her. Dionne thought Bird Hill was provincial, far too small a stage for a girl like her. There was a flash of excitement when a talent scout for the Miss Teen Barbados pageant came to Bird Hill. For a brief moment, something like joy washed across Dionne’s face when the other girls pushed her forward, saying that she would surely win. But when the scout heard her accent, the woman — whom Dionne later pronounced both too fat and too ugly to be scouting for a beauty pageant — asked whether she was of both Barbadian heritage and Barbadian citizenship, and she’d had to admit that she was in fact an American citizen. Just like that, Dionne’s dreams of emancipation from the lot of the fatally dull girls in Bird Hill were dashed.

How she longed for her best friend, Taneisha, who could make a walk to the corner store exciting, stopping every few steps to say hello to the boys who were hypnotized by Taneisha’s green eyes and something else, not aloofness, exactly, but a way of broadcasting magnetism without need. Whenever Dionne tried to emulate Taneisha’s cool, she ended up seeming standoffish or mean. After years of being on the periphery of the popular girls at her school, she had finally broken through because of Taneisha, whose tongue never got thick in her mouth when she was nervous the way Dionne’s sometimes did. It helped that Dionne had scored Darren as her boyfriend, and that soon after they started dating, flesh and muscle started to fill out her lanky arms and bust and behind. The spring when Dionne and Darren started going together, there was a temporary pouring in of sunshine through the cloud that generally hovered over Avril, and she asked which boy was touching Dionne’s bubbies under moonlight. Dionne was taken aback by her mother’s directness, but then she answered that she didn’t know any boys who would be touching her like that. Some part of Dionne was annoyed by how quickly Avril dropped the issue, ready as she was for a fight, and desperate as she was to feel the unfamiliar prick of an adult’s concern.

Dionne didn’t feel bad about lying to her mother. She knew intimately the precarious nature of their life, the way that it depended on a series of carefully constructed lies, the ones she told to get meat on credit at the butcher at the end of the month when her mother’s money ran out; the ones she told to fend off her and Phaedra’s teachers’ suspicions; the ones she told to keep her friends from coming over to her house, and seeing her mother. Avril didn’t move around much, so Dionne knew she could probably get away with shepherding any visitors into the back bedroom she shared with Phaedra. But there was still the problem of the smell — the scent of eucalyptus from the humidifier Avril kept going all day and all night, the stench from the stinking bush teas Avril bought from some woman on Church Avenue and that she was convinced might heal her, although months and then a year had passed and Avril still showed no signs of getting better. Dionne and Phaedra held their noses every time they came home, lest they choke on their mother’s sadness. The more lies Dionne told to protect her mother and herself and her sister, the easier it was to lie to her mother, to anyone, really. And by the time Dionne arrived in Barbados, lying was less a moral dilemma than a means of getting by.

Despite the difficulties of life back in Brooklyn, Dionne preferred the predictable chaos of life there to the monotony of life in Bird Hill. To say that she was disappointed to be spending the summer in Barbados would be an understatement. She was furious. On this particular afternoon, Dionne was contemplating the relative virtues of a quick death — a plane crash, a car accident — over a long drawn-out one, exacerbated by a church’s prayers that held you precariously in the land of the living. Today, the radio was looping a story about the death of Barbados’s oldest living man, at 113 years old. While everyone on the radio marveled at his fortitude, Dionne couldn’t help thinking that 113 years was just too many years to live, especially here. She sighed to herself, and went back to the book she was reading to Phaedra.

From The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Naomi Jackson, 2015.