THE MOMENT I KNEW I LOVED _________
by Sydney Steward
I look up from my phone, scouting the street signs for a match—Madison Avenue. I turn left, quickly glance across the road for oncoming traffic, and press on. The air is cold; it’s late January. My feet ache against the concrete, but nothing can stop me. A happy panic propels me forward. This is the day we have been waiting for. The hospital sign begins to peek into sight. Once I arrive at the lobby, I pause to unzip my coat. I ask the receptionist for directions to her room. The hallways feel familiar: high ceilings, bright lights, a chemical shine along the tiles. After navigating a maze of elevators and corridors, I spot my mother through the glass window, and she motions me over. Surrounded by my entire family, there she sits. Tubes and drains and cords dangle from nearly every orifice. She looks up and flashes her gummy smile.
“Sydney, I knew you’d make it! Your Meme got a new kidney.”
I walk into the foyer of the dining hall. On the right I see a mysterious brown canister positioned on top of a table. A dining hall staff member sits nearby with a ladle in hand. I walk over to her and inquire about the contents of the dispenser. She explains that today is “Cultural Appreciation” day and the item on the menu is bubble tea. She further explains the drink, adding new words to my adolescent vocabulary—boba, milk tea, tapioca, Taiwan. Who knew an entire culture could be captured in one cup! “Can I try it?” She scoops clear boba from a bowl and plops it into a cup. She presses the handle on the canister, and a tan liquid rushes from the faucet. Handing me the concoction, she invites me to choose a straw. I grab a white one, noting its diameter and wondering Why is it so big? I insert the straw and take a sip. The textures collide on my tongue—the squishy boba floats along the smooth river of milk tea. I am chewing and somehow swallowing all at the same time. It’s so confusing, but so sweet.
I think about bubble tea for the rest of the day.
We bob our heads. We flail our arms. We scream together, “It’s over…” She turns the key in the ignition, and the radio abruptly cuts off. Reality rushes in. I.S. 211 is nowhere in sight. I look out the window and spot a street sign reading East 84th Street. We are parked in our usual spot across the street from our new apartment. Salena sits next to me, her L.L. Bean backpack tucked behind her legs. My mother reaches to the back seat to grab her purse and discovers the puzzled look on our faces. “What’s wrong?” My sister and I share a glance. Speaking for the both of us, I ask, “Can we finish the song before we go in the house?” She smiles. She slides the key back into the grooves, and the engine rumbles. The dashboard lights up, the CD icon blinking. My mother twists the volume dial to 28. My sister curls her fingers to strum the notes on her imaginary guitar. I hold my sticks and bang every drum, from the snare to the cymbal. My mother grabs the microphone to take the solo. The song picks up exactly where it left off:
“It’s over…Leave it!”
The alarm jolts me from my sleep, snatching me from my dream. I tap the ‘stop’ button on my phone screen and lie back in bed. I consider the tasks for the day and feel them flood my mind, one by one. The long to-do list sits on my chest, holding me hostage in bed. I organize a makeshift schedule. I release a long sigh and decide to do my best. I swing my legs out of bed and stand up. Salena is still asleep, so I slowly open our bedroom door and slide through the doorway without a squeak. The sun fills the living room, leaving bright splotches on the floor in the shape of the window pane. I walk up to the window sill and pick up a white ceramic pot. I peek over the edge and see nothing but dirt. I begin to return the pot to the ledge but stop midway; a speck of green catches my eye. I lift the pot closer and count three sprouts poking through the soil.
Broom in one hand and Lysol in the other, I am armed and ready to fight. Salena stands behind me cowering in fear. I crack open our bedroom door and spot the flying blob blending into the curtain. We consider the possibilities. Is it a squirrel? A bird? A flying cockroach? We choose the final theory. The roach crawls across the dreamcatcher hanging above my bed. Salena yells, “Well, go in there! Kill it!” Fear swells in my gut; I know she is waiting. My sweaty palms clutch my weapons tighter as I advance into the battlefield. With hesitation, I swing…and miss. Dodging the attack, the insect flies across the room and lands on my sister’s One Direction poster. Salena bolts to the adjacent room and I follow, finding her at the top of the bunk bed. Before I can close the door behind me, the unrelenting enemy enters the room and zips into Salena’s face. She screams. Her features crinkle as tears slide down her reddened cheeks. I have failed. I am powerless.
I am enraged.
It is 2:28 AM. I lie back in my bed, his oversized t-shirt hanging off me. I softly gaze across the room, my eyes outlining his back. He is in front of my wooden desk, sitting in a chair way too small for him. Sam Smith floats in the air. Rather than shy away from the challenge, Peter belts the words. His falsetto croak follows along, shamelessly struggling to keep up. I remember that these memories are fleeting. I open my phone camera, the flash obnoxiously illuminating his dark brown skin. Without missing a beat, he looks over his shoulder, his glossy eyes meeting mine. My lips curl up into a smile. He turns back to face the desk.
“Everyone prays in the end!”
The room is noisy—hundreds of people having hundreds of conversations. I scroll through Instagram, mindlessly liking the images on my screen. I toss a couple of stale popcorn kernels into my mouth. I check the time; she’s two hours late. Still, I am patiently waiting. The yellow house lights dim. Tiny white dots speckle the theater, the audience eager to record this moment. I toss my phone into my bag and slide to the edge of my seat. Fully engaged, I take it all in. Blue smoke rolls across the stage. Strobe lights beam in a circle as the retro instrumental begins. My heart claws at my ribcage. From stage left, I see her. Grey sweatpants with a matching top, black heels, and a fur coat. Her brown hair hangs from her beanie. The crowd roars as she waltzes to center stage and declares, “But you caint use my phone!” The beat drops, pulling me out of my chair.
My heart shatters my chest. My soul transcends.
I am standing in line with my father and Salena at the McDonald’s on Rockaway Parkway, the one down the street from the house. I scan the colorful menu. The options are endless: burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, McFlurry. I tell him what I want—what I always want—a Big Mac. Before we make it to the register, a tall, slender man with shades, a Kangol, and a brown suit walks through the doors. My father smiles, knowing the surprise in store. I run up to him and shout, “Hi Uncle Unique!” He squats down to embrace me. “Hey Sydney!” I wrap my arms behind his neck as he lifts me up in a hug. Before I know it, he puts me back down and says, “Whoa….niece…you should lay off the Big Macs…”
I promise myself that I will never eat a Big Mac again.
It is 11:32 PM. I can still hear my mother’s voice from our conversation. She’s ignoring me, doesn’t look at me…I expect that we’ll move out of the house in the next couple of weeks…this is why you can’t trust anyone. *click* I pause the painful replay and check into the present. I am sitting on his bed, back against the wall, facing the TV. My eyes are sore, and my cheeks are warm. The tears dried hours ago, but a tightness lingers in my chest. Dubois is lying flat, arms propped behind his head, watching me through the dark. I am silent. He is listening. He reaches for the remote control and clicks YouTube. 8 Hours of Deep Space NASA Footage. Planets, stars, and galaxies pan across the screen in slow motion. Enraptured by the universe, I barely notice the tugging on my sleeve. “Come closer.” These college dormitory beds are not built to fit both of us, but he always makes room for me. I crawl across the tiny mattress and sit on his lap. He asks, “Do you want to listen to Spotify?” I nod my head. He presses the power button on his Bluetooth speaker, and it quietly pings as it pairs with his iPhone. After a quick scroll through his library, he selects a playlist entitled Contemporary R&B. The first song on the queue: “Get You” by Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis. It’s a love song, one of my favorites. I sing the beginning line with my eyes closed. The melody lifts me, sending me to a new plane. I am existing in a space beyond my body, a dimension where love is forever and divorces don’t exist and life is a little kinder. My voice tethers me to reality. Kali Uchis starts the final verse, and I drift back to Earth. I open my eyes and remember that I am not alone. I look down. Dubois is smiling up at me. I smile back and sing the last line (to him):
“Boy, you’ll lead me to paradise.”
Being a Black Woman
The main avenue of the richest, whitest neighborhood in Brooklyn is packed with black and brown bodies. Colorful signs of all sizes bounce in the air. Black Lives Matter. Fuck the Cops. Breonna Taylor. The humid air leaves sweat on the back of my neck as I march forward with my black sisters at the front of the crowd. The men stand at the back. This march is for us. A band plays drums and tambourines. We clap our hands to the beat and dance down the street. A short woman with long black braids shouts into a bullhorn: “Fire, Fire, Gentrifier!” We repeat her words in response. Our voices rise and reach the ears of the tenants in the brownstones above. I look to the sidewalk and watch as our audience watches us. A black man rolls down the window of his car and raises a fist in the air. A white clerk leans on his storefront, grimacing. I smile under my face mask and think, “The revolution is coming.” The crowd turns down a residential side street and the woman changes the chant. As I scream in response, she turns to me and asks, “Do you want to lead?” My heart flutters with excitement as she hands the bullhorn to me. I take a deep breath and yell with all the fire in my soul:
“Black women don’t owe you shit!”
Hot Baths (and myself)
The steam in the bathroom is thick. I flip the light switch, sending me into comfortable darkness. I slide out of my flip flops and approach the tub. Balancing on my left side, I dip my right foot into the water. My skin tingles. I keep my foot suspended as such, waiting for my nerve endings to quiet down. I plunge further, hitting the bottom of the tub and following up with my left foot. I am standing here, alone, in the dark. Thinking. I squat and sit, porcelain against my skin. The water sloshes up and over the rim. My body is throbbing. I do not flinch. Now, I feel it all.
I pull my knees to my chest and hold myself.
Sydney Steward is a senior at the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. Outside the hospital, she has many creative pursuits—writing being one of them. For her, writing is healing; it is an art of self-preservation. Although poetry is her usual mode of expression, creative nonfiction has recently piqued her interest. The two genres inform each other, making each piece even more intentional, vulnerable, and experimental. For questions or inquiries, reach her at [email protected].