© 2010 Sandra Jean-Pierre
Even at the age of five, I was not to be out done.
I remember my disappointment, when upon waking in the mornings and I’d find not only my Aunt gone but my Older brother AND my Mother too.
I’d quickly scramble out of the twin bed, unafraid of my bare feet touching the cold hard wood floors of the apartment, damning my chubby fingers for getting stuck between the large wheel and the smaller push wheel of my manual push chair and cursing ye Gods for making me sleep so heavy and sound, that I missed all of the commotion of early morning prepping that surely accompanied the departure of My People, all this as I made my way to the kitchen door exit.
I’d peer at the peep hole, which I was too short to reach, even if I would have tried to stand on my chair seat and peep outside, in case they were all just waiting for me to find them in a chance game of hide-and-go-seek.
I’d try the slippery slick door knob, turning it this way and that, pulling with all the early morning life in me, in case it would have been left un-locked in a haste I was sure they were all in, to get away from me, and I’d struggle with the Goliath door to no avail.
Running through my mind of what else I could do, I’d sit stone still, listening, listening to the noise an almost empty apartment makes, when the inhabitants were away, surely to come back before the night began its watch, only to be disappointed further when the realization would fall upon me like a soggy blanket that indeed, the only other person in the apartment with me was my Grandmother, Mami Cherie (Mother Sweetheart, thus dubbed my by older brother, before he knew better), who was anything but sweet.
I’d look around in hope and anticipation, as I made my way to the back of the apartment where my room was, that I was mistaken and they all were just huddled together, talking quietly or watching something really interesting on TV and were thus equally quiet. All that greeted me though was the dark screen of the TV and my lukewarm breakfast of Haitian hot chocolate, toasted peanut butter and orange marmalade or concord grape jelly sandwich, cut in a diagonal and more silence.
I’d poke my finger into the hot chocolate to check the temperature, thus attempting to gauge exactly how long ago they had left. If my finger encountered the fatty “skin” floating on top of the cup, I knew that it had been a while and the best thing to do would be to eat quickly before the bread got stale. If there was only the thin beginnings of skin on top of the chocolate, I’d thin that if I hurried, I may still have time to take a bite of the sandwich for strength and try the door again and maybe, just maybe be able to make it to the stairwell in time to see the coat tails of my Mother, yell down to her to wait up for me and scoot down off the wheelchair, onto the stairs and thusly scoot down the amount of steps necessary to meet her. I’d always tell myself to remember that when I slid off my chair, to reach back and throw it down the stairs ahead of me, so that my Mother wouldn’t have to waste her time climbing the stairs once I met her, to get my chair.
More often than not, I just wound up eating the bread and using the crust end that I didn’t like, to fish out the floating skin and drink down what I could of the hot chocolate before abandoning further plans of escaping the apartment to find my family.
Once I began to accept that it was only Mami Cherie and Me in the apartment, the next part of my dilemma was how to evade scrutiny and detection of said grandmother. Mami Cherie was of the old old school of Haitians, the ones who saw kids not for the children that they were but for the work that you could get out of them. If it happened to be one of those mornings when I actually had a temper tantrum at the sheer audacity of abandonment of my family, Mami Cherie would soothe me with manual labor. In her eyes, I was neither too small or too infirm to clean nor participate in the daily activities of running house.
Those rueful and upsetting mornings would find me crumple-faced and threatened with spankings if I did not lug out the Hoover and set it up in my Mother’s room for her to vacuum it out or if the carpet weren’t matted enough to warrant a vacuum, that I should be picking up the white visible bits of debris; I’d get stern talking to’s if there weren’t a rag in my hand dusting down my Mother’s bureau or at least attempting to spread the bed.
No- better not incur Mami Cherie’s wrath but how would I be able to carry on my plans for the day without being detected!?! After all, there was much to explore and discover in an apartment and if I spent time cleaning and helping with household chores, I wouldn’t be able to explore or discover any of it! Silence – I HAD to be silent!
Typically, if Mami Cherie weren’t in the kitchen, eating her breakfast of casav(a) and peanut butter with strong sweet brewed coffee poured on top, while sitting on the small stool, then she was generally in her room, napping or sewing or staring out the window at the people down below. If I was extra quiet in my morning re-con of who was or wasn’t in the apartment, then I would be able to make it back to my room, switch on the TV and put it on super super low, so low that I would have to sit so close that I was able to see the individual color dots on the screen. Once the TV was on for some period of time, without her detection, I easily lay into my breakfast in relative peace. Unless I laughed – but I had to remember that I couldn’t laugh (!!!) no matter how funny Heckle and Jeckle or Popeye the Salior Man was! I couldn’t blow my cover!
If I was able to make it through breakfast and my cartoons undetected, the next plan was to wash and dress myself and wash out my breakfast dishes in the bathroom sink in an equally stealth fashion. The danger in being discovered while washing up in the bathroom?! That I hadn’t done it BEFORE I ate breakfast, watched TV, spread the bed or otherwise tidied up. The rule in our house was that you NEVER EVER ate anything before brushing your teeth AND washing up AND being dressed – EVER. This offense was punishable by public humiliation and by public, I mean any worthy grown-up who either called the house or who came to visit. If they came to visit, that would be worse because you would be made to stand in front of said grown-up while the acts of your misgivings were recounted, with liberal sprinklings of dirty girl and sunwont (without shame) or salòp (literally the pig’s slop, piggish in manner) thrown in for good measure. There was so much riding on my ability to execute my movements in silence!
Thankfully my Mother would layout my clothes before she would leave the apartment, so getting dressed wasn’t an issue. The issue came in using the water from the tap! Being on the sixth floor, sometimes when the tap was turned on, it would groan and make noise on its way up – no good for going stealth. Depending on which would be the bothersome tap that morning, I would either wash in a barely turned on cold water tap or an equally barely turned on hot water tap – which was much more preferable for two reasons. The first reason was that cold water in the morning sucks. Hard. There is no incentive in washing the private bits in cold water – none. The second reason for want of warm water was the breakfast dishes – ever try washing Haitian chocolate out of a tas with cold water?! No easy job, especially while using ordinary bathroom soap, like Caress, to soap it up and then wash it out. Never mind not having access to a sponge or dish rag.
Prickly sweat would sting my underarms as I made my way, pushing with my feet backwards, arms loaded with the breakfast dishes, to the bathroom. I had to lift each leg in turn, so as not to drag it along the floor while inching closer to the bathroom. Once to the bathroom threshold, I’d quickly heave my way over and quietly lock the door, careful to gently lean forward and place the breakfast dishes on the floor under the sink, so as not to make obvious my dish washing plans should I get busted. If I had left overs, I would quickly pour the liquids down the sink and wrap the solids in toilet paper and noiselessly slid them into the toilet so that it would just look like someone forgot to flush!
Once the food had been disposed of, I would make quick work of testing which tap would be of service to me. How to choose which one I would try?! Eeeny Meany Miny Mo of course – quietly! Fright would sting my ears as I eagerly listened for any offending noise. Eeeny Meany did well this time, real well. After wetting the toothbrush and piping a dab of toothpaste on it, I made sure to hit all the “test” spots to ensure I would pass the teeth brushing – the front top and bottom of my teeth and my tongue. The rest of my mouth would be sacrificed for the sake of time, although I knew sometime in the week, my breath would be odorous enough to alert one of the grown-ups that I had been cutting corners, which would earn me a grown-up finger, wrapped in twil (tulle), loaded with baking soda and forcibly scrubbing down my mouth, much to my protests. But who cared?! Now was now and time was of the essence!
Teeth done? Check. The face was less difficult – a wet hand across the damp bar of soap produced sufficient soapage to cleanse in my book. Two or three more wet hand passes under the water and across my face rinsed things enough to pass the Your Face Shouldn’t Be Shiny After Washing It test. A dampish-soapish wash cloth took care of the unmentionables and all I was left with was the pits. The arm pits posed a danger. Had I been too well bundled up in the night, surely I would have that kid funk. I would have to actually soap up the wash cloth and do a deep wash to get rid of that! If I cut this corner, this would have the potential to earn me a bath and nothing was worse or worth a bath! Mind you, time is ticking plus I still had the dishes to get through.
Executive decision – wet the bar of soap thoroughly, stick the bar of soap under each arm in turn, swing my arms back and forth to create lather, then pour water over my shoulders, while swinging my arms so that my jamas would act as wash clothes, scrubbers and towels all in one shot. Considering that I would have to take off my pjs in order to get dressed, I could then spread the wet jamas over the bed to dry – none would be the wiser. And a hand towel hanging on the towel rack could take care of that spill on the floor.
No sooner had the Executive decision gone into effect and was completed, were the dishes quietly placed into the sink and the same bar of soap that I used to “wash” was lathered up in one hand and quickly passed through the cup and plate. Done. The fear in being caught washing dishes in the bathroom sink was that it wasn’t supposed to be done. I knew enough to know that. But if I left the dishes in the room or worse yet, brought them to the kitchen after Mami Cherie was done having breakfast, I faced the potential of dishes, that were possibly left over from last night, being in the sink and thus left there for me to wash. And who wanted to stand in front of the sink to wash dishes?! Yes, even at the ripe old age of five I was washing dishes. I know, I would have been too short to stand in front of the sink to wash dishes but that’s what stepping stools were for and it was the kind, that should I get tired, I could sit on it and then get up again when I was rested. No thanks! I wasn’t taking any chances!
My mission complete, I opened the door, grabbed the dishes, did a once over in the bathroom and inched my way back into the room. Thoroughly pleased with myself for having evaded detection.
Until I realized that my bed had been made, when I hadn’t had a chance to make it and my grandmother sat waiting for me on a chair, in the middle of the room.
The look on her face were all the words I needed to know, I was in for it now.