The first time she had let Chris kiss her stomach before he died was when he lifted her shirt and said, “time’s up.” After three kids, her skin sagged indicating the doorway through which they had entered the world, and so she had not let him see this part of her. He dropped tender kisses above her waistline at first sight, moving back up to kiss her on the mouth.
Her ex-husband had not loved her that way, not fully, not since her youth when they had made promises to each other that they could never fulfill. Not now that he told her she was no longer beautiful the way she once was and that she had stopped taking care of herself, all because time had creased gentle wrinkles and frown lines on the topography of her face.
But Chris, careful Chris, had kissed every part of her body, his fingers tugging gently at her earlobe, his lips caressing her neck, his hands holding tightly onto her rough palms. Palms of a woman who had held a household together all by herself, tirelessly for an eternity. This was the first thing that struck her about the absence of Chris. The day he died, she realized there would be nobody to kiss her stomach in that way. That any lover she may meet would never hold her quite as tenderly. Never look into her eyes the way he did, whispering in her ear, tutoring her teenage daughter, Trakeya, who he parented like his own. Not only had he eased the life of a single mother, but he had also eased the heart of a jaded woman who had seen too much of life. Not to mention her other daughter, Jela, who had taken after her father instead. With Chris’ absence coupled with Jela, the small apartment felt larger than it ever had, like a good real estate deal for a family of two.
And Shemika had tried with Jela, the best she could. She had sent presents every Christmas that went unanswered. In her imagination, unopened and tossed into the trash. Emails that were probably being sent to spam. She had wanted to scream, to write a note explaining that her husband was oppressive and spilling lies into receiving ears. That he had made promises he never kept, like giving up smoking with her or properly parenting their child, her own grandchild, attentively. Like letting her pursue a career without getting in her way, holding her back and guilting her into feeling as though her advancement were an insult to him. Shemika had never met her grandchild; her friend had informed her about his existence through a Facebook post. Just as Shemika had informed Jela of her cousin’s death through an unanswered email. Life and death, it seemed, were communicated one-sidedly between them, which was the largest kind of rift.
The stresses of life had worn down on Shemika harder since Chris’ motorcycle accident. Passerbys said that he flew up a couple of feet into the air upon impact, and the image of Chris flying for that final moment, suspended in the air before a final landing made her sick. She thought about it, not having seen it herself, as she did the dishes before sending Trakeya to school and heading to the record store for her retail job. She had been working overtime, doing other people’s jobs in fear of getting let go. Her manager barely seemed to notice, smoking weed in the back room and listening to Billie Holiday as Shemika looked up records for customers and gave recommendations and processed the transactions. She had no choice. There were bills to pay, including her ex-husband’s phone bill. He would not pay it otherwise to keep in touch with Trakeya. And as much as she hated him, she wanted Trakeya to have a father, even if just so she could feel less alone for a moment or two in parenthood. The courts had not severed his ties to them yet anyway. He had been putting off signing away his parental rights. Something about not being able to pay child support. Not that he treated Trakeya like his child, anyway.
She had looked at herself in the mirror the day Chris died. Immediately, she felt less pretty with her wrinkles and stomach, her breasts which were not as perky as they once were. He had always made her feel beautiful because of them, not in spite of them, but all her insecurities came back with a force, like the once he had probably experienced that day up in the air knowing he would come back down for the final time. She had a household to run. She did not have time to grieve. Not when there were dishes to be done, bills to be paid, a bedroom to clean, and a daughter to raise.
The very next day, a Facebook post announced Jela’s move out of the city and into the suburbs in New Jersey. To a new address. What was the end of a life for Shemika and Trakeya had only been the start of a new journey for Jela, who had cut ties with both of them entirely. She had changed her number a while ago, and Shemika texted the out-of-service phone: I miss you. Shemika’s gifts to Jela stopped after that. The mailman could not deliver without a specific address.
The last English assignment that Chris had tutored Trakeya for was The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It was assigned for her 10th-grade class, and while she had always excelled at math and science, it helped her to talk through fiction before writing papers. A week before Chris’ passing, Trakeya talked about it at their small kitchen table.
The story goes like this: Gregor Samsa, breadwinner for his family, becomes a cockroach one day. His family locks him up in his room, feeds him, and removes his furniture so that he can crawl in filth all day. Eventually, he forgets how to be human and they forget about him, find ways to be self-sufficient, and move to the future as he dies a lonely pest death in a dark, forgotten room. It is amazing, Trakeya said, that his humanity lay in his job and possessions. As soon as those pieces of his personhood were removed from him, the makings of a man, he became an empty space, occupying an empty room. His family stepped into themselves, not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
On that morning, the worn, annotated copy of The Metamorphosis sat on the kitchen counter under a basket of brown bananas that needed to be replaced or baked. Forgotten. Just like the dishes, the clothes on the floor, and the daily hot breakfast ritual.
Depression had set in overnight, a shadow of Chris at the doorway replacing the living, breathing human that he had been. The other moms at school had always criticized Shemika’s parenting. There was no satisfactory way to be a single mother, it seemed, no matter how heavily you lifted with all your might. But now there was pity in the equation, too, which made everything more unbearable. There was always something to point out, some deficiency, as though having two parents necessarily guaranteed perfection or excused any lack thereof. There is, however, no perfect way to parent, Shemika reminded herself of what her mom had told her when she was younger. No perfect way. But the shadow of Chris made perfection even more unobtainable, and she felt as though she could no longer even reach for it. Where he had once stood, there was only a shadow lurking by the doorway sometimes when she blinked her eyes open from a deep sleep, cast in the dark bathroom momentarily by the wrongly perceived shape of a towel hanging on the shower rod.
Jela had heard the news of Chris’ passing, had not even reached out to check on Trakeya’s wellbeing if not Shemika’s own. Shemika needed, for her own sake, to get rid of the shadows in her home. She had no time to grieve, no time at all. The box of Jela’s childhood possessions sat in a closet. She piled Chris’ washed, folded clothes from the closet into the box, pushing and shoving so that everything would fit. She would take the box to Goodwill the next day, she told herself.
Her ex-husband, Leo, and his new fiancée, Lissa, came by one afternoon, just a week after the event. Trakeya was at school (and her grades had been slipping due to two critical assignments in the short amount of time between before and after). After awkward greetings at the door, they settled down on the loveseat, Shemika on the threadbare armchair, and regarded each other, waiting for someone to break the silence. The apartment was a mess but Shemika could not find it in herself to be ashamed.
Lissa pursed her lips and said finally and sharply, “what a shame about Chris.”
After a silence. “What a shame indeed,” Leo tried to keep the smugness from permeating through his voice, succeeding only somewhat.
“Yeah,” Shemika said quietly, wishing she had what it took to show them the door, the Goodwill box still watching them from beside the entryway.
“You haven’t paid the phone bill yet this month. It was due yesterday,” Leo said.
“I must have forgotten,” Shemika said. “With everything that’s been going on.”
“It’s probably best that you do it soon, you know. It’s important to prioritize a father’s relationship with his daughter,” Lissa said.
“Have you come all this way for a phone bill?” Shemika snapped.
Lissa shifted her feet on the puffy part of the laminate floor. “Jela reached out,” Lissa said.
“She can’t make it to the funeral,” Leo added. So Jela had gotten the email, Shemika thought in wonder. Many times, Shemika had written unsent emails to Jela explaining that her husband was emotionally abusive, that she had married the younger version of her father, that she needed to leave. But Jela was close to Leo, and that would only alienate her further, so instead she had sent presents to an old address and texts to a void.
“I figured,” Shemika said. “Why are you really here?”
“To give our condol–” Lissa started.
Leo interrupted in annoyance, “I am not signing away parental rights. Trakeya is my child and I want partial custody.”
“You’re not…” Shemika whispered quietly. And then louder: “if you can’t pay your fucking phone bill, how the fuck are you going to afford a lawyer?” Shemika could definitely not afford a lawyer.
Leo shrugged. Lissa looked visibly upset, as though she had not wanted any part in this reclaiming of a carefully-forgotten child.
Shemika considered her words carefully and came up with nothing. “You should leave,” she said, her voice wavering where she had intended for it to be strong.
Leo and Lissa opened their mouths to object, and Shemika found a burning anger within her. “Leave,” she pointed at the door. Leo shook his head in annoyance and Lissa smirked. The pair stood up, dusted themselves out as though her couch were infected, and stormed out of the door, not bothering to shut it behind them.
Shemika’s most prized possession was her record player. It had been a gift from Jela, right before Jela quit her marketing management job to work in retail with her to-be husband and prior to cutting Shemika off and getting weekly dinners with Leo. Shemika could not remember how she found out about these dinners.
That evening, Shemika played Sarah Vaughan’s jazz compilation at a quiet volume (the neighbors would complain at any sound, so the trick was for the music to permeate the space without being truly present). All that Shemika had ever wanted was to protect Trakeya from the world. But now that something sinister was coming, she understood that she had already failed, and it was time for Trakeya to become a woman in every sense that mattered, legal drinking and college applications aside. Trakeya sat on the loveseat before her. She appeared hollow as she had since Chris’ passing. Her bright smile was replaced with a severe, straight line of a lip. She ran her hand through her gorgeous, curly black hair and looked up with tired eyes.
“I want you to know, baby,” Shemika said, holding her daughter’s hand in her own, “that I never wanted for any of this to happen. That what I’m about to tell you is going to be very difficult.” Trakeya was already tearing up, bracing herself for more bad news as though the death of her surrogate father were not punishment enough. But if Trakeya were going to be caught in a custody battle, she would soon know everything all at once in the most horrible of ways: a court order. So Shemika explained the situation. She watched her daughter age before her, temporarily adopting the creases etched into her own face. Shemika was quiet.
“I have an English assignment due tomorrow,” she said, as though unable to process the conversation at hand. “Will you help me?”
“Yes, of course, sweety,” Shemika said, drawing in a breath.
“He’s bluffing, mama. He can’t even pay his own phone bill to talk to me for a few minutes every few weeks. He is bluffing,” she said quietly. That was the million-dollar question. Whether Leo was leeching off Shemika for a phone bill he could afford in addition to a lawyer, or whether he could truly afford neither. “Become a cockroach, mama. And then we’ll know.”
Cockroaches did not have to pay others’ bills, or work overtime, or volunteer at the PTA to prove their capabilities as a single mother. The phone bill sat on her table, unopened (Leo had them delivered directly to her every month). So she transformed. She would not die alone in a dusty room like Gregor Samsa, no. She was too loved for that, too important. By Trakeya, by Chris. Chris who had kissed her stomach, the doorway, so tenderly and lovingly. Trakeya who worked tirelessly at school and helped around the house and smiled like she did not have a care in the world despite everything in her life demanding to weigh upon her.
Shemika opened the phone bill and laughed. She had not laughed since Chris’ passing. Overdue, it said. $55, it demanded. It was a bellowing, deep laugh. One that the neighbors would complain about if one could call the police for witnessing happiness. She sat at the counter at work handling the few transactions that came in. Her boss asked her why she was not working as hard. “Gregor Samsa,” she said, and he was too high to understand.
“I’ll fire you,” he said.
“Do your worst,” she said. And he did not.
She quit the PTA. Moms gossiped when she went to a parent-teacher conference. The unmarried woman with a dead boyfriend raising a daughter all alone. And she flashed a smile at them. “Good morning, ladies. Did you want to say something to me? I thought I heard my name.”
They were quiet for a moment after that. “No, no, you must’ve misheard. We were talking about, uhh… the weather. What a lovely day. What a lovely day.”
She received no calls from Leo. She programmed his email address to go to spam. There were probably threatening messages in her inbox, probably growing angrier by the day, but she had not a care in the world. She got an email from Jela with the subject line ‘stop being a bitch’, which she promptly deleted. She was a cockroach now. And if she ceased to fill a role he had set for her in his eyes, he could step up and either move forward with a custody battle or piss himself in bed for all she cared.
She heard knocking at the door one evening as she was tutoring Trakeya. When she saw his contorted face through the peephole, she smiled.
“Keep knocking and we will call the police for harassment and threats,” Shemika yelled through the door.
“Time’s up,” Trakeya said from the table.
“Time’s up indeed, sweetie,” Shemika responded as Leo yelled and threatened to break down the door to take his daughter and stormed away. Time’s up, she could hear Chris caressing her belly in her mind. Time’s up indeed, and she could feel a ghost kiss from Chris, a final belly kiss (probably the gust of wind as she opened the door) before she picked up the Goodwill box, packed with possessions of her estranged daughter (record player included) and manipulative husband, to drop off on her way to work. She kissed Trakeya’s forehead right before she left.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
― Franz Kafka | The Metamorphosis
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Paint the roses red; time has no hand to hold when you’re dreaming through the New York City Hours.