Pop! Pop! Pop pop pop!
I squeeze my eyes closed as tight as I can. Bring the soft down blanket up to my face. Just as ma had taught me all those years ago.
My heart knocks on the door of my chest. Begging to be let out. And so I take a long, slow, deep breath. Just as ma had taught me all those years ago.
The blanket balled up in my clenched fists, my eyes glued shut, I begin to float. To drift. Away. To that place ma had taught to escape to all those years ago…
I stand in front of a line of my peers. Off to the side of a large stage. At the base of one set of stairs. There are hundreds of people in the crowds. All smiling. All fanning themselves with the rolled up program of today’s events. And birds chirp far above us. Happily singing as they glide on the warm winds of a bright and sunny spring afternoon.
A man with a wrinkled face stands behind a podium in a gown and speaks. Periodically looking off to the side. Down to the anxious, restless line of us. And his eyes then focus. For a moment. On me. Look deep inside of me as he speaks, “…we are so proud,” before looking away. Back toward the hot but happy crowds.
My heart is racing. Dancing, really. My soul singing. As I make my way up the stairs. Almost tripping on the gown that is just a tad too long. I make my way toward the wrinkled man. The Dean of my college. And fight so hard. To keep the tears away. The joyous tears that wish so desperately to spill from my eyes. But one lone tear spills out. Trickles down the side of my overheated face, as I shake his hand. Feel the warmth of his arm wrap around me, as he pats me gently on the back. And I hear his heart whisper into my ear, “You deserve this.”
And so I stand there where he had just been. Staring out at the sea of smiles. Focusing on one especially bright smile three rows from the front. My ma’s.
But just as I open my mouth and begin to utter whatever profound thing it is that I am meant to utter, my attention is drawn away. To the dark clouds that begin to hang loosely from the once sunny skies. Sirens replace the happy chirps of the happy birds. Smiles fade into frowns. And just like that…
I am awake.
My eyes flutter open. And I hear the indiscernible cries of people nearby. On my street. As I do most nights. Blue and red lights fill my room. The City’s nightlight. But I do not dare get up from my bed. I do not dare take a look outside.
My father had left ma and me before I was old enough to even know who he was. He left us because he had been shot. Had fallen victim to the horrific surroundings that were inner-city living. He’d lost his ability to discern the difference between right and wrong. And so ma always made sure to remind me before I left for school each day. To make good choices. And so I tried as hard as I could to distance myself from the darkness that threatened to bleed its way into my home and poison my life.
Ma worked three jobs in order to pay for food and to keep this dilapidated roof over our heads. And she’d taken $5 every month and placed it in a box under a loose floorboard by her dresser. Saving it for me.
And I remember asking her as I began to grow up how $5 a month was going to help me when I was older. How that was ever going to come close to being enough.
“It will never be enough if you don’t start somewhere,” she’d say, meaning every word of it with every bone in her body. Making me believe it as well.
And so when I was lucky enough to get a dollar for helping this neighbor or two for helping that one, I’d take it and put it inside of a random sock, and shove it in the back of my drawer. That was my start of saving something for ma. I knew right now it wasn’t enough. But hoped with time and luck and patience and hard work, one day, it would be. And she wouldn’t have to work three jobs. Or live under this dilapidated roof.
Each night I lie in my bed, curled up, hidden from the evil outside, with my eyes shut. Forcing my mind to focus on the future my mother wants for me. On the future I so desperately want for me too. And it is this shared future that serves as my lullaby. Willing me into a deep and restful sleep, despite the loudness of the bad choices that scream at me from the outside.
I’m fairly certain this is what happens to all of us. At certain points in our lives. It’s like an out of body experience. A nightmare somehow blended into reality. And you stand there for a brief second wondering Who am I? How did I get to this point, to this choice?
Earl had been a neighbor of ours since I could remember. He was white. I was black. And none of that mattered. Even now. As I stood before him. With my shirt raised up. The gun nestled snuggly in my waistband. Exposed for him to see.
“Shoot that motherfucker!” Lamar cheered behind me.
Lamar had been my closest friend growing up. He had grown, like all the other boys from my hood, from an innocent young boy with hopeful dreams in his heart, into a confused, scared, lost young man. And so, naturally, I thought that was what I had to grow into as well. And in some sick part of me, I thought that by doing this I was winning. I was surviving to see another day when so many others didn’t. And that if I kept surviving, somehow, one day, I would stand on that stage before that sea of smiles and be the man I wanted to be. This was the only way I knew how to get there from where I was. To keep living. To keep ma alive.
So I reached for the gun. But I was covered in sweat and so I had to wipe my hand on my jeans.
“You don’t really want to do this,” Earl said.
And the way he said it. So casually. Made me want to cry. He was less afraid than I was. Because he thought he knew me. And he knew that I’d make the right choice.
Make good choices…
It started playing over and over in my head. Not in my own voice, but ma’s. And my heart crawled its way up my throat. I was paralyzed with fear and confusion and uncertainty about who I was and what I should do.
“Shoot that motherfucker!” Lamar said it as more of an order this time. More of a threat.
And it was. Because he said all these terrible things would happen if I didn’t do this. “Earl is your right of passage,” he had said to me. My ticket to being free of this place.
But now that I’m standing here, I’m not sure I understand the reasoning. And for the first time in a long time, I think about the father I never knew and wonder if he, too, had stood here paralyzed with fear and confusion over what had happened to him.
And so I made a choice. I smiled at Earl and lowered my shirt. Leaving the gun where it was. He mouthed, “Good boy,” and smiled.
Pop! Pop! Pop pop pop!
I thought about fireworks going off above the stage of my graduation. And felt this warmth spread throughout me. And I felt so proud. Of this good choice I had a made.
“Antoine!” My mother shouted out to me.
And I wondered how she knew where I was. And then I fell to the ground and started to feel a cool sensation mixed with a twinge of pain replace the happy warmth that hugged me just a moment ago. Looked down and saw the red gushing out of me. Saw my hopes and dreams spill out and stain the already stained pavement.
Sirens rang out in the distance. Ma ran to my side. And I felt her tears rain down on me. I began to choke. But with the last bit of energy, I reached up toward her. Wiped away her tears and said, “Today, I made a good choice.”
I stood, hidden behind a large oak several hundred feet behind the throngs of people who had come to Antoine’s funeral. My face burned from the endless stream of sadness which ran over it.
I wanted so badly to be there. Closer to him. To say goodbye. But I knew the little brother of the murderer would not be welcome.
I turned away from the service and let my back slide down the rough, scratchy surface of the tree. Wrapping my hands around my legs, I let my head rest on my knees. Closed my eyes. And prayed.
I prayed for Antoine and hoped he’d somehow be given another chance at life. An easier one. If there was such a thing. I prayed for our neighborhood. And I prayed for myself.
Letting out one last moan, I wiped away the remnants of my tears and stood. I grabbed my duffle bag and began to walk. In search of a better tomorrow. Away from this place everyone got lost in. I didn’t see another way. And I hoped this was me being like Antoine. I hoped that today I was making a good choice too.