When the Cheikh called to inquire whether Aicha was in New York, Rama could not lie. If her mother is not his favorite wife, she is his favorite daughter. She said yes. He hung up. He sent word through his followers he was to arrive Friday evening. It is Wednesday afternoon.
Turning into Charlene’s 136 Street Hair Hook Up, Rama holds her breath. The walls are blood-orange—the color of the flamboyant trees back home—and taped on each are the black and white headshots of not quite celebrities in asymmetrical haircuts and extended weaves testifying in scrawled black marker to Charlene’s as the ‘hair hook-up’, ‘the go-to-woman’.
“So different than the shining oil-white walls of salons back home, Tita,” Aicha says often, calling her daughter by the childhood nickname she uses only when she is happy. No color on the walls meant no loss on the security deposit when the salon inevitably didn’t succeed. At home, hope was temporary, like everything else, left to the will and whims of a mostly indifferent God.
Wedged into the corners of the salon’s oversized mirrors are near sepia-colored Polaroids of younger Charlenes, positioned between the legs of various red-eyed anonymous men, neck and waist lassoed by muscular arms. Charlene’s smile in each picture is eager, disbelieving of the heartbreak already evident in the men’s poses. There are rumors that Charlene has children; some said two, others swore as many as four, but no pictures of them are to be found in the salon.
Aicha and the two women from Guinea work in a corner Charlene subleases to them, far away from the interminable heat of flat irons and dryers, the television blaring videos and talk shows. From their corner the three African women witness Harlem as it comes together each morning and falls apart each late night. If it cared to, which it never did, 136th street could also watch them as they attack the heads of women they poach from its corners, their immigrant vendor English promising any and all styles of braids they could care less whether they delivered on. The money—always cash—was the object.
“Hey Ramalaye,” Charlene calls, not looking up from a press and curl.
Rama half waves, embarrassed to raise her voice against the din of the shop’s dryers, the television and more than one or two conversations in an English she still hesitates in. She avoids the shop mirrors. In the air of the shop are the scented hints of what she will never be and never know: confidence, beauty, a hunger for a different life and being. She does not correct Charlene’s mispronunciation of her full name; in the shop as in America, the extra syllable hardly seems worth fighting for.
As she approaches the corner where her mother braids hair, the two women from Guinea eye her warily. She is quick to greet them. They greet her back reluctantly, their fingers resolute in their furious braiding. They are in America now, attaching lengths of plastic hair to a woman’s graying tufts. Every braid is both profit and expense, a sure fingerhold in the ladder upward toward the Americans they will one day be, in spite of their present undocumented status as wives to taxi drivers, 99-cent-store security guards, and other low-wage off-the-books workers. They know Rama’s father, the holy Cheikh, may even have some respect for the esoteric knowledge he is reputed for, but they have nothing in common with Rama, her student visa and the apartment he rents for her. They are not kept women, they like Rama much less than she wants to like them.
“I need to talk to you,” Rama leans forward to Aicha, aiming at as much intimacy as the circumstance allows.
“So talk,” Aicha replies in English, strands of fake hair between her lips. She does not look up. A single head can equal as much as two hundred dollars. She will pay each of the women from Guinea twenty dollars for a head’s labor and at the end of the week seventy-five dollars to Charlene for the use of the space.
Rama’s cheeks get hot. She looks at her shoes. “Not here.”
Aicha does not stop her braiding. Her fingers press the client’s half-braided head into awkward angles. Rama cannot see the client’s face but the woman’s discomfort is her own.
“Girl, can’t you find yourself a seat?” calls Charlene. “You making me nervous hawking over customers like that.”
Rama chooses a ripped chair, its stuffing exposed and spilling, craning her neck awkwardly under a broken dryer. Before her are magazines, hair care and other rag tag tabloids that like Aicha, with her micro-braids and skin bleached a motley café-au-lait here, plain coffee there—like Charlene and her salon even—have seen better days. Believing America the land of self-improvement, Aicha steals the magazines. At night as the television blares QVC shopping bargains, she moves her lips over incomprehensible words like blowout and rehabilitation, phrases like marriage gone kaput.
“Charlene,” calls Aicha finally, “I’m taking some me time.” Rama cringes at her mother’s attempts at vernacular.
“Aicha, you can’t see I got my hands full? I don’t have time to waste on you and your ‘me time’ nonsense.”
Aicha ignores Charlene, motions to Rama to follow her. Walking to the small room at the back of the shop, Rama is certain the salon’s eyes follow them, secretly laughing at Aicha and her poor attempts at integration, unforgiving of the ocean wide difference between Africa and Harlem.
“Speak. Time is money, and I ain’t got enough of either.” Aicha collapses into a chair, reaching for a pack of Newports—Charlene’s brand—lying on the table in front of her. Aicha’s movements are affected from a video or TV movie mother and daughter have recently watched.
“Papa arrives Friday.”
It has the effect Rama wants. For a moment, Aicha is knocked off her superiority, her three-month-old newly-remade-in-America self.
“How do you know?”
The cigarette might tumble from her mother’s fingers and burn the faux silk top she has bought on 125th street. Rama feels a small ugly triumph.
“I don’t know, but he arrives Friday.”
This is untrue. He called from home, Rama had spoken to her mother’s co-wives, but she has her mother’s complete attention.
“Insh’Allah, God willing,” Aicha adds quickly, automatically. Rama wonders if she will, like that, here in a back room of Charlene’s 136 Street Hair Hook Up, revert back to being the third wife of a Senegalese holy man.
“Did you tell him I was here?” Aicha pulls nervously, unsteadily at the cigarette.
“He knew already.”
“You told him,” she accuses her daughter.
“He told me to tell you he was coming,” Rama repeats.
“He knows,” Aicha swears. “Busybodies.” Their language from home returns easily to Aicha’s mouth as if she had not abandoned it all these months in America. Rama’s anger flares. The Cheikh’s immigrant followers were everywhere. Did Aicha really believe the traitorous streets of Harlem to be her confidante? That her unannounced arrival and loud forays into a foreign world could go unremarked?
If Rama had the courage, she would laugh out loud, say to her mother what did you think, but her mother’s co-wives have raised her too well. She studies the uneven tile pattern instead.
The smoke from Aicha’s cigarette curls a thin familiar wall between them.
“Aicha, you know you got two heads out here waiting!” Charlene’s voice is sharp. “Come Thursday, I don’t want no song and dance when it’s time to pay me my money!”
Aicha gets up, stubbing out the cigarette on the floor, reaching to touch Rama’s face only briefly before returning to her women.
In Rama’s second year in America, she telephoned her mother religiously. By then, Aicha had already begun and failed at an impressive string of businesses—none with the Cheikh’s blessings—and her interest in talking with Rama was sustained only the length of time it took for her to share her latest business idea or her most recent crisis.
“Waaw?” Her mother always sounded distracted.
“It’s me, Tita.”
“Chei, Rama! Of all days to hear your voice! God must have heard my prayers! A woman’s only worth is her daughter, bilahi!”
“Heii Maman, I miss you too—“
“Bilahi! Of all days to call!” Aicha sucked her teeth loudly. “That so-called holy man you call your father, do you know what he did to me? I swear he wishes me nothing but ruin!”
“Maman, how can you say that? You’re his wife.”
“—not lifted one little finger to help me. He wants me dependent on him like the other two fat cows he calls wives…”
“Oh hush, you-in-your America. Not everybody’s road can be walked!”
“Aiee, Maman, it is not easy here either, just yesterday for example—“
But Aicha was no longer listening, the background noises of her life drowning out Rama. She barked impatient orders to the latest in a series of house servants she would eventually accuse of being the Cheikh’s spies and dismiss. She sucked her teeth once more. “’Allo, Rama?”
Rama seized her opportunity. “I was just saying that it is difficult here too. The other day—”
“I was always meant for bigger and better things, you know. Sow agrees.”
“Sow, the man who reads my cowries, predicts my future.”
“I thought his name was Ba.”
“Ba? Ba couldn’t see a lit candle in a dark room. He has wasted my time and money. But Sow! Sow’s sight is strong, bilahi! Anyway, he was saying—”
“Mama, you know Papa doesn’t condone such things.”
“Again with your father! Do you ever listen? Sow has said my future is bright, I am meant for a bigger destiny than this miserable life here, deh! He has seen it! He knows I am surrounded by jealousy, evil eyes, people who do not want my well-being!
“What do I want but a little piece of happiness, all mine? Is that too much to ask? I ask you Rama, you are a woman now, tell me is that too much to ask for?”
Aicha never waited for an answer.
“Your father has once again cut me off. And me without a franc! Will you talk to him for me? Or better yet, send me some money from that life of yours in America.”
Aicha’s voice broke into a sudden softness.
“Sow has seen you too, you know. He says your future is guaranteed. So many good things! He told me to tell you not to worry, all that you are working on, all that you want will come to pass. You must keep on doing what you are doing. You are on a path to success.”
The words fell around Rama like hailstones. Her second American winter and forecasters were calling for a nor’easter. Her co-mothers made soft comforting sounds into the telephone when Rama called, offering duas and prayers against loneliness and cold, confirming the faith of a faraway daughter in an equally far away God.
“Chei Rama, this life is so hard, what is a mother without a daughter?” Aicha sighed. She did not wait for her daughter’s response. “Nothing, I tell you,” she answered herself confidently. “I tell you, nothing.”
Like a hyena in the bush, the avenue moves inconspicuously, slyly waiting to rush in and devour unsuspecting innocence. Even in daylight the avenue is overwhelming for Rama; every morning’s turn onto the wide cement ways of Lenox Avenue recalls her first days in America when her clothes, hair and shoes drew stares and pointed fingers. Making her way to the job at the library, she still holds her breath, reciting short suras of protection.
Aicha sits on the edge of the bed, her profile cast orange by a streetlight coming through the gated window. From the adjoining avenue a siren’s call is shrill. There is the plaintive yell for someone named Tone to open the door, goddamnit, open the door. Again, Aicha reaches for her cell phone. She harassed Rama into giving her the phone card she uses to call her co-mothers on Sunday. Aicha shifts nervously, standing and pacing the length of the short, barely carpeted hallway between Rama’s bedroom and the sealed bedroom Rama keeps for her father’s periodic visit to his immigrant followers. Aicha hangs her arm over her head in despair, pressing redial again and again. She comes back to bed. But she does not sleep.
Rama is a good girl, the grown-up baby Aicha always claimed was too easy. “Never enough fight in you,” her mother sucked her teeth.
“Cheii yallah,” Aicha pushes herself back onto the bed. She lies down on her side and then turns onto her back. “It is not so easy to stand on your feet all day. My back hurts, my feet ache.” She is once more speaking the language of home.
If it had been the Cheikh or one of the co-wives, Rama would have wordlessly reached for the shea butter and eucalyptus mixture to massage into the soles of their feet. But Aicha’s months in America have coincided with a fashion resurgence of stiletto heels and she wears them relentlessly on the broken sidewalks of Harlem. Plus she smells of cigarettes. Did she really think the Cheikh upon his return would not notice the polluted air of his holy space?
The next morning will arrive and Aicha will remain sleeping as she has for most of the mornings of Rama’s life, even as she dressed for school, exams, now work in America. Charlene never opened the shop before ten, and the Guinean women, busy with the cleaning, cooking and babysitting that was still their work in America, never arrived before twelve. By that time, Rama will have shelved a reading room’s worth of books, typed new collection titles into the outdated library database, all under the watchful eye of Mrs. Johnson Bailey (of the Johnson Baileys of Lenox Terrace), who still could not believe Rama, after only three years in America, could be so proficient in English as to have understood her instructions perfectly and work unsupervised.
Did Aicha really think America would be as easy as arriving on Rama’s doorstep one bright spring day, a plastic sealed market suitcase filled with a small fortune of made-in-China plastic slip-on sandals, bootleg designer perfumes and fake jewelry to sell? That home and its connections could be as easily cut as the Brazilian hair Charlene regularly weaved into Harlem scalps? After three years in America Rama has not even lost her accent.
Aicha moves from the bed once more, cell phone in hand, walking into the living room. There is the light of a match and then the sound of the phone tossed onto the coffee table.
From her place in the bed, Rama watches her mother take her once beautiful face, now tattered, over bleached and over made up, in her hands.
The Cheikh’s wives praise Rama for her compassion. Call her an exemplary daughter of an exemplary man. They reserve only a thinly veiled apathy passing for pity for Aicha. “You can’t blame your mother, you know,” the second wife was famous for reminding her. “She had barely finished primary school when she was married.”
“If that much,” the first wife added.
Rama hears the Cheikh’s voice in her head. In prayer we beg God for forgiveness. None can be saved from the wide-eyed justice of the Almighty.
Rama rolls over, shutting her eyes tight. She remembers Aicha from her childhood: a dark slender beauty, young and wide-eyed, sitting stiffly, a gaze fixed out the window. Vigilantly watching for something Rama, in her rush to be seen, would never know. After a weeklong separation at her co-mother’s house Rama wanted her mother only to be waiting for her.
But Aicha never turned her head in Rama’s direction until Rama was nearly upon her. And then, Rama was instantly regretful, her mother’s fragile beauty and innocence lost once more, as Aicha turned an accusing glance upon her daughter, narrowed eyes searching Rama up and down, seeking the marks of betrayal the weekdays spent at her co-mother’s house must have certainly stained her daughter with.
Rama opens her eyes. Sees only Aicha in her Harlem best: tight jeans and high, high heels, falling in vulgar prostration on the couch in front of a blaring television.
When she is six, the first full weekend after school began, Rama was allowed to return from her co-mother’s home to Aicha’s house.
“Tita! Alhumdulilah!” Her mother released her from the grip of a tight squeeze to inspect her.
“Where are your books?” Rama struggled to remember her mother so flushed with excitement, her eyes dancing large in the moon of her then completely cocoa-colored face. “Show me your lessons! I was always first in my class for memorizing lessons!”
But Rama could only stutter an inadequate response. Her lessons had been completed that morning under the supervision of her half-brothers and sisters. She had then neatly packed her schoolbag, and left it sitting upon a shared desk, beside a carefully folded, already washed and pressed, ready-for-Monday school uniform.
Rama lowered her eyes. A heavy silence fell between mother and daughter.
“Oh well,” Aicha struggled to keep her voice gay. She let a hand fall to her daughter’s head, caress the new tight lines of braids she had not put in, and then fall to stroke her small chin. “Oh, well indeed! There is always next week, yes?”
Yes, next week, Rama promised both her mother and herself.
But the following Saturday as she tried to pack her schoolbag in anticipation of the magic moments her mother and she might share memorizing poetry and doing sums, she was summoned to her co-mother’s bedroom.
“Tantie?” Rama kept her voice just above a whisper. Nor, as much as she was learning to love this new mother, did she look her in the eye.
“Schoolbooks are not toys for play. They cannot be dragged everywhere you go. You are going to your mother’s for the weekend. What good will they serve you there?”
It was not right for Rama to answer and at six there were no words she could offer to explain or defend her mother’s palpable but mysterious ache.
“All the Cheikh’s children earn high marks. The Cheikh will be sure to reward you with a present if you work hard and take good care of your school materials.”
Rama was given a sweet. She knew to unwrap the plastic, and place it, neither too quickly nor too slowly, in her mouth. But she found she could neither chew, suck nor swallow it, and as she was patted on the cheek and led to the Cheikh’s dark car and driven to her mother’s house, she felt the sweet turn toxic on her tongue.
Her mother was waiting for her at the door. Watching Rama emerge from the car empty handed, her mother began to pace the length of the tiny doorway. When her daughter stood before her, she reached for Rama and shook her down. Seeing no books fall from any bag, Aicha snatched at a telephone.
“Who does she think she is? Senior Wife, maybe, but I am your mother. I am your mother.” It was all she could say as her hands handled the telephone roughly.
“Put Ramatoulaye on the phone please!” Aicha shouted. Rama heard the smooth tenor of her co-mother namesake greeting her mother not only in her name but also in the name of the Cheikh.
She watched as her mother’s anger melted into tiny ugly shards like the candy on her tongue.
“Yes,” Aicha repeated over and over but now it was without much force. “Yes, but the term reports are not for many months still, I would like to help her now…”
Her back grew slack. Rama turned her head away, no longer listening to her mother whisper the words. “Yes, Insh’Allah, God willing. Yes, it is best.”
Aicha hung up the phone and was so still, Rama forced a cough, as much as to remind her mother she was in the room as to cover the noise of defeated silence. Instantly Aicha flared.
“And what are you standing there for?” She raised a hand as if to strike Rama. Rama remained still, unflinching. She could not meet her mother’s eyes.
Aicha’s hands fell to her side.
“And if you do not bring home to me those famous term reports I will beat you within an inch of your miserable life, bilahi!”
Aicha turned and stalked from the room, leaving Rama mostly to herself for the duration of a lonely weekend and the rest of Rama’s academic career.
There is a torn picture in the wastepaper basket of the small bathroom. Half-ripped as if, in that long night, instead of prayer, Aicha settled for disappointment instead.
With his dimpled smile and the nonchalant tilt of his chin as he turned away from the camera, the Cheikh’s co-wives might have suggested the young man in the picture as a potential husband for Rama. He might have been pinned into Charlene’s mirror. Smoothing out the ripped and wrinkled picture, Rama feels a cutting pain.
Aicha is still on the couch, unmoved from a sleepless night. She does not hide her cigarettes, the water cup used as an ashtray, or the crumpled packet of Newports on the floor.
Rama lays the picture before her. “Who is this?” Her voice is a hoarse whisper.
Aicha hardly glances at the picture. From the television there is the cheer of a studio audience as a favorite daytime host takes the stage.
“Is this why Papa is coming?” Rama asks again. She will not raise her voice; she will not look her mother in the eye.
Aicha looks at Rama then. Automatically, Rama drops her eyes. Only in America has she ever mustered enough courage to stare forthrightly at anyone and then it was only to a camera for a student ID card.
“It’s your father’s house,” Aicha says flatly. “He has a right to come home whenever he wants, yes?”
The picture curls around its rip.
“It’s his house, yes? His home?” she repeats, her eyes do not leave Rama.
Rama touches the edges of the picture once more, aiming to unfurl it.
“Who is he, Maman?”
“Does it matter?” Aicha’s voice is cold. “One of your father’s followers? Someone, who like me, thought maybe America was the land of freedom and wanted to get away, but maybe in the end only wanted a free trip to America offered by a foolish woman.”
Aicha grasps the picture from Rama with a sudden force. “Do you know when your father returns home from his travels, I visit him at the homes of your co-mothers like everyone else? When it is my two days for his visit, my home is filled with other old men paying their respects. And my days in between? Filled with nothing but waiting.”
She tosses the picture onto the table.
“I have known for a long time what I am. Not first wife, not second, not even a mother to sons.” Aicha looks at her daughter and smiles. She shakes the pack of cigarettes and then finding nothing, throws it alongside the picture. “I am not even a too smart daughter studying in America.”
Rama begins again. “He arrives tomorrow night.”
Aicha sucks her teeth with a short laugh. “Yes, and he comes bearing all the tsking tongues of the co-wives, the family, the friends. My name burned by their tongues. Yet again.”
“But Maman,” Rama is at a loss for words.
As if reaching out to her daughter, Aicha cheers suddenly. “But am I not here, far away from that? In America, with my only daughter. What could be better than that?”
She says better, she means safer.
The television fills the silence between them and Rama is grateful for American noise.
“I have never lied to him,” she says cautiously.
“He is your father,” Aicha agrees softly.
If it had been one of the co-mothers, there would have been movement toward her: a gesture for Rama to place her head on her lap, a pat on the head, even a movement toward the beads in a prayer for peace for clarity. But it is Aicha, and so there is no movement at all. There is only the noise of a life neither is versed in.
Friday morning. Rama rises late, missing the first prayer of the new day.
Aicha is gone.
Rama calls the library and leaves a message for Mrs. Bailey Johnson. Unable to lie, or even imagine a day off, she can only stutter incoherently into a voice mail that she will be late.
When Aicha returns it is close to ten. Her face is once more triumphant, like the day she first arrived in America. The Guinean women are behind her; they offer Rama the familiar dismissive greeting.
Aicha is busy in the apartment, stuffing a medley of garbage bags, plastic shopping bags and the one suitcase. In her three months in America, Aicha has accumulated more than Rama has realized.
“He arrives this evening,” Rama stutters.
Aicha does not stop in her movements. She gathers, stuffs, passes bags to the Guinean women who disappear out the apartment with each piece of Aicha’s new life.
“He wants to see you,” Rama tries again.
“He knows where the shop is,” Aicha says. There is no trace of the bitterness of the previous night. She pauses in her movement only for a moment. “So do you.”
Rama cannot speak. She follows Aicha and the Guinean women out the apartment and down the stairs of the walkup.
Outside, Charlene sits in a double-parked 4×4. The radio is on and she is smoking furiously.
“C’mon Aicha girl, I don’t have all day. I got customers waiting.” She flutters fingers in Rama’s direction.
It is October, winter already announcing itself in small puffs of cold indistinguishable from the smoke curling from Charlene’s cigarette. Rama wraps her hands around herself.
“Slow your roll, girl,” says Aicha, her r’s still pointed, her accent still a burden in this language.
Aicha places the suitcase in an open trunk and slams it shut. Coming to Rama, she bends forward and pushes her two cheeks against Rama’s almost joyously. Like when she arrived. The Guinean women are already in the back seat, the shopping bags on their lap.
“You tell her about the apartment?” Charlene calls over the radio.
“Not this one, not yet…” Aicha turns back to Rama. “She’s her father’s favorite.”
“If you need anything, you come and find me.” Aicha’s smile in the October morning is dazzling.
“God keep and bless you,” she prays quickly in their tongue. She turns and gets into the front seat, slamming the front door behind her.
“You were such a beautiful baby, Tita. The co-wives, your father’s followers… They were always jealous of me and you.” Something glints in Aicha’s eye. Rama prays it is sadness.
“I would have named you anything else.” Her mother says this every time she paid an obligatory visit to the co-wives. When she loves her daughter she calls her Tita, little one, as if Rama is small and in need of protection.
“I might even have named you after myself,” Aicha says suddenly.
“See ya then, Ramalaye,” calls Charlene, pulling the car away from the curb.
It’s Ramatoulaye, she wants to yell.
At the corner they turn onto Seventh Avenue, away from Rama standing still in the morning cold. Somewhere behind her is the Cheikh’s apartment, and somewhere in the morning Mrs. Bailey Johnson’s library, yet Rama is unsure how to find her way back to sit and await the Cheikh’s return.
On a Sunday visit to her eldest co-wife’s house when Rama is six, the Cheikh decides that Rama will leave her mother’s home to go live with her namesake, his second wife. His six children by her were enrolled in French schools and could help Rama with memorizing the many lessons she would be expected to recite.
Rama watches her mother’s fingers busy undoing the hem of a simple cotton dress she has designed and sewn. She does not raise her eyes to look at either the Cheikh or his co-wives, keeping her voice measured.
Hasn’t Rama already excelled at the Koranic lessons one of the Cheikh’s followers gives her? Hasn’t all this been done under Aicha’s supervision, in her home?
There is no response from the Cheikh.
The first wife shifts in her seat. “Little sister Aicha, French school requires discipline, a familiarity with its language and books.” Rama prays it is kindness she hears in her co-mother’s voice.
The Cheikh’s voice is tired. “Aicha cannot be counted on to provide her daughter with what she has never known.” He returns to his prayer beads, the heavy click of one bead against another, one prayer clashing against another.
The dress hem falls from Aicha’s hands, but still Aicha’s fingers continue to move against each other as if trapped in an insignificant rebellion no one has taken notice of.
The first day of school, Rama and five of her older half-brothers and sisters file into the Cheikh’s sleek black Mercedes. Rama is like the other children, noisy in the start of a new adventure. There is only a passage of seconds between the battered taxi’s leap into the driveway and the cool slide away from the house of the Cheikh’s Mercedes. Instinctively, Rama turns in her seat.
Aicha, dressed in a thin, almost transparent housedress, clutching a veil that barely covers her head, jumps out, tossing wrinkled bills at a faceless taxi driver.
Rama can only watch as her mother rings impatiently at her co-wife’s door. She does not turn to see the Mercedes gathering speed, carrying her daughter away. But Rama watches as her mother becomes smaller and smaller, until Rama can no longer see her, can barely glimpse her mother’s impatience and loss on the steps of her co-wife’s house.
The whole way to school Rama does not turn away from her watch out the back window. Hoping without prayer for a glimpse of a battered taxi coming after her. Aicha coming for her.