Today is Friday and Keke’s daughter is with her daddy. So Keke and her mom, Lynette, are going to eat carry-out and watch Imitation of Life. They gather plates, open wine. The usual. A Styrofoam box drips moist heat from wings with mambo sauce and fries. Lynette’s talking, upset about the weed smell in the hallway of her fifty-five-and-up condo building. Yesterday, a man outside looked at her “funny.”
“Ma, this is Arlington, not North East. That man ain’t paying attention to you.”
“And you see, Keara, that’s the problem.”
Keke’s phone rings but she silences it. Lynette says, “Don’t act like it ain’t one of them sorry men of yours.”
Ignoring Lynette, Keke texts: At my mothers watching a movie
I like movies… Nnamdi writes back.
She considers calling, yet an old memory holds her back: Keke, sixteen, caught while phone-sexing Rasheed. Three in the morning, she touched herself beneath sheets, moaned into the receiver, mimicked what they did alone after school at his grandmother’s. Between their tinny whispers, a faint click preceded another’s animated breath. No way, she thought until the phone, snatched, disappeared from her hand. Lynette yanked the wire hard from the jack, yelled, slut! Her mother’s fire palm was a lightning clap knocking Keke against accordion closet doors.
But they always fight. And when they fight — bodies squared, arms flying, fingers in faces, faces red, sweaty messes — Keke has an urge to stop and press her nose against Lynette’s collarbone. They say memories don’t form until after four-years-old, but Keke swears she remembers resting her head there as an infant, cocoa butter and sour milk widening her nostrils.
Or maybe what she remembers is the picture on her mom’s wall: sixteen-year-old Lynette’s profile, short afro, mouth open (probably yelling at someone off camera), the back of Keke’s little head covered in matted black curls balled into the cleft of Lynette’s neck. Her baby hair reminds Keke of the doll she accidentally set on fire at six. One of the few gifts she’d ever gotten from her daddy before never seeing him again, the baby’s synthetic hair singed slowly as it sat against the kerosene heater.
But, Nnamdi’s smile, though.
The brilliant one he gives every morning she enters her office, his security guard’s uniform so crisp, it could stand on its own. If they married—wait, Keke scolds herself, don’t start that mess. But the vision is there: Bare muscles flexing with every push-pull of the iron. “I’ll do the dishes,” he’ll say. Flipped house with granite countertops. Feet cozy beneath his thigh while watching television. White papers spread over a mahogany table: math homework with her daughter. A man around every day. Friday night movie dates without her mother.
Later, she cannot come up with a reason why, but she texts him the address. When Keke tells Lynette he’s coming over, her mom sighs and throws plates into the sink.
Keke went on a date with her mother once. Lynette, twenty-six, bought ten-year-old Keke to Fridays instead of Red Robin like Keke wanted. Keke wore Rainbow Brite headphones and cornered against the wall inside a booth, jammed loudly to a song she could not remember now. When the man frowned, her mother took her headphones away. He smiled then, too wide and too eager. He asked about school, her favorite subject, did such a pretty girl have a boyfriend. Keke winked and he laughed. Her mother whispered in her ear, “Please, Keara.”
The adults talked and drank. Keke slipped off. A small ten, she ducked under the table, and wandered the restaurant, crawled the floor, found other forgotten items: pens, hair clips, a ten-dollar bill. Outside between two dumpsters, she watched waiters talk, their orange-tipped cigarettes danced circles against the evening sky. This ballet and the warm summer breeze lulled her to sleep.
She woke to sirens. White poles of flash light darted up, down, back, and forth. Her mother cried, desperation stretching her voice, “Ke-ara! Ke-ara!”
Keke stepped from the darkness. Lynette jerked her arm, cut half-moons into Keke’s skin with her nails and spanked her bare legs until they both were crying. They rode home in a police car; Lynette’s date had left them.
“He could’ve been your daddy,” Lynette said.
Leaning against the window, Keke smiled against the cool skin of the inside of her arm. She didn’t want a daddy.
But now, they’re on another date and her Nnamdi brought alcohol, made drinks, called Lynette “Mama.”
“Nnamdi, how old are you?” Lynette says from her living room couch.
Lynette laughs, crosses her glowing golden-brown legs. “I appreciate manners but save your ma’am’s for someone else.”
“Why?” Keke says, “Don’t nothing but old people live here.”
Nnamdi looks around the immaculate apartment, handles a wooden tribal statue of a couple kissing. “You like African art?”
Lynette sits up, smiling, “Of course. I love anything from the Motherland.”
Keke coughs, almost choking. “Motherland?”
“I’m heading home to Nigeria soon. I’ll bring you something back.”
Lynette takes a sip, wide hazel eyes steady, “Please.”
Keke did not inherit those eyes. “Are we watching the movie?” she says.
Nnamdi settles between the women, and Keke stiffly presses “play.”
“I’ve never seen this,” Nnamdi says. Both women gasp, clutch their chests and exclaim in mock horror. When Annie tells Lana Turner’s character, “Sarah Jane favors her daddy. He was practically white,” they all laugh. Sarah Jane is whiter than the palm of their hands. After the smiles fade, a comfortable silence coalesces this awkward threesome into a natural form without their knowing. Relaxing, Lynette shoves her feet beneath Nnamdi’s thigh. A slight hesitation, but then, as if magnetized, his hand makes up the space between it and Lynette’s foot, palming her sole as if it has done so every day of their lives. Keke watches this exchange, feeling the stunned delay of a fist to her throat. She felt that same pain ten years ago, when she told Lynette she was pregnant. At twenty-nine, Keke was grown, an HR rep with decent money and a two-bedroom off Irving. Her boyfriend even wanted her ring size.
It was Friday. The movie Mermaids. There were sirens again. This time, they came from outside the apartment on North Capitol where Lynette still lived in the subsidized home she’d raised Keke in alone.
“We’re getting married,” Keke said.
“After the baby?” Lynette said.
Keke shrugged, and Lynette suddenly pushed Keke, so hard, she fell off the couch. Keke balled her fists and stood, but Lynette pushed her again. She tripped over the coffee table, falling on her side, clutching her barely pregnant belly. Lynette stood over her, “You and me. That’s it.” Keke hadn’t heard that desperation in a long time. She understood it though, cradling her gut while balled on the floor.
She ignored her own pain, said, “Get a fucking life, Ma,” stood, and didn’t call for weeks.
Now, Keke is in the kitchen making herself another drink. She watches her mother and Nnamdi. He brushes lint off Lynette’s shoulder, flashes that smile, asks if she likes Stanley Clarke. Keke wonders if one day her cocoa butter and sour milk memory will be replaced by a series of fights or one static image of her mother’s angry face. That face is now younger looking than any day in Keke’s memory. Keke’s rage is a stone, like cold congealed wings in fat and mambo sauce. She wants to fight – really – square her body, fling her arms, point her finger in her mother’s red, sweaty face. Tired, she gathers her things and leaves. There’ll be some other Friday, some other reason, for all of that.