[Editor's note: Part 1 of Queens, Sayeeda Copeland's mesmerizing autobiographical story in progress of being in foster care, is in the Exquisite Pandemic Archive here.]
The Christmas tree stayed up in the Alston’s house until March. I remember the day it was taken down because it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day--and the day before my birthday. Besides church, we didn’t go anywhere special. After evening bible study, Mr. Alston picked us up and drove us home. Mrs. Alston instructed Juanita to help me undress the tree once the table was cleared. The dried pine needles fell like confetti as Juanita and I carefully removed the green and silver decorations. Mrs. Alston sat on her spotless couch, after dinner, and watched us closely. She didn’t speak, just nodded or shook her head if asked anything. There were presents still perfectly wrapped under the tree. I figured they must have been for relatives who weren’t able to visit for the holiday. I also wondered if they might have belonged to Juanita, but she must have been naughty and didn’t receive them. Juanita must have been thinking the same thing.
“Momma? Can I open them?” Juanita picked up the tiniest box, wrapped in a white and silver paper. She shook it fiercely near her ear and it sounded like rice in the box.
“Is it a pair of earrings?!” I asked Juanita. She folded her arms still holding the gift.
“Now, Aubrey, why would it be earrings? Momma don’t have her ears pierced, silly girl!” She tossed the box my way. I caught and examined it like a rubix cube. I looked at Mrs. Alston who was now removing what appeared to be clip-on earrings.
“What could it be then?” I asked again, now looking at Mrs. Alston.
“It ain’t earrings because Adventists don’t like bling!” she flashed her rare smile and danced like a ballerina around the tree.
“Juanita!” Mrs. Alston was sharp and stern. “Lord, Jesus help me.” she put her hand against her forehead as if feeling for her temperature. “ Go upstairs and get ready for bed. Make sure you say your prayers and repent for all of the foolishness tonight!” The couch’s plastic made noises as Mrs. Alston scooted her body off of it. She motioned for Juanita to head up to the attic. Juanita dropped the gift and went upstairs, stomping as hard as she could.
I walked around the tree as Mrs. Alston piled the gifts up in my arms. She instructed me to take them to her room. I had never been inside. The door was cracked open so I turned my back and pushed it open wider. The room was dark. In the center was a huge bed. I could tell it was expensive and sturdy. Mr. Alston lay still on the right side of the bed, stirring only once when I stubbed my toe on their wooden bedframe.
“Louise?” he called out. I stood there frozen, trying to suppress the scream I wanted to let out from my throbbing toe. The bed creaked as he sat up and turned on the lamp on the nightstand next to the bed. Mr. Alston grabbed his tinted glasses, let out a yawn and cleared his throat. “Goodnight, young lady. Go ahead and put them down, anywhere.” The light from the lamp made his gold tooth shine as he spoke.
“Goodnight, sir.” I tried to keep my eyes on the pastor preaching on the muted screen. Mr. Alston moved the mountain of blankets that were covering him and swung his legs over his side of the bed. He wore a striped pajama suit. It reminded me of the pajamas worn by these life-sized bananas from a show I watched when I was younger. He then got on his knees and started to pray. Frozen again, I didn’t know whether to join him or leave. He never came with us to church, just dropped us off and headed home. It was something humbling about seeing an older man on his knees. The older men I was used to were domino players and loud cussers from around my way. I wondered if Mr. Alston was repenting from what was on that LAST button channel. I began tiptoeing out of their bedroom. The cushion from the carpet made it easy not to make a sound but I felt wrong for being there.
“You don’t have to call me Mr. Alston. You can call me Papa.” His head was still bowed. I paused and turned around. I could now hear his breathing. I watched his body rise and fall with each breath. The television now showed the same pastor laying hands on people. They were fainting, just like Mrs. Alston would do during church service.
“Well I do have a daddy...sir” His head rose. I figured I said something wrong to have him stop praying. His glasses were now foggy. He lifted himself off of his knees, surprisingly without his cane. He moved the blankets and patted the empty space beside him for me to sit. I limped over from near the big wooden dresser and sat next to him. The gold tooth shone again, this time even brighter.
“You know, I had a little girl just like you.” His crooked index finger tapped me on the nose. “I had her, and like your daddy, she went away.” I nodded, wondering now where this little girl was and if I could play with her.
“She was in the towers too?” I knew that it wasn’t polite to ask too many questions like my mommy always told me. I hope I was still staying in a child’s place.
He motioned towards the closet door, where his cane hung on its knob. I jumped off the bed and grabbed it, and handed it to him. Mr. Alston grunted and pulled himself up on his feet. He walked around the bed to the corner where I had dropped the Christmas presents. He tapped the first box and I ran to pick it up for him. We made it back to the bed. I stared at the present, knowing that Juanita would be so jealous if she knew I was holding it.
“Go ahead, and open it. Happy Birthday, Aubrey.” I stared at him with a face of uncertainty. “Go, ahead, now.”
I slowly untied the perfect purple bow. The ribbon was soft like silk between my fingers. I ripped the wrapping off as carefully as I could. There in my hands laid a small brown-skinned baby doll. Her hands were curled into tiny fists and her eyes were shut like a newborn baby’s. I smiled when I pressed her foot where the TRY ME tag was and she let out a soft giggle. The pink pacifier in her mouth was so tiny and her yellow nightgown matched the one I had on.
“Do you like it?” Mrs. Alston’s voice startled me. Her body looked dark standing in the doorway. She pushed the heavy door open wider. I quickly jumped off the bed and pushed the doll baby onto the mountain of blankets.
“I didn’t do nothing! I swear!” The ribbon fell to the floor. Mrs. Alston walked into the room, ignoring my trembling voice. She examined her face in her vanity mirror and removed the brown bob wig with honey highlights. She placed it on her mannequin head sitting on top of the television. Joining Mr. Alston on the bed, she raised her brows waiting for my answer.
“Do you like the baby doll, Aubrey?” she asked again, handing me the doll. I grabbed it and nodded yes. I held my new dollbaby, watching her eyelids open and close as I moved her up and down.
“Thank you Mama, thank you Papa.” The words fell from my lips before I could understand the weight of them. I didn't want the Alstons to replace my mommy and daddy but I knew they were not bad people either.
I climbed onto their bed and gave each a kiss on the cheek. I closed the heavy door behind me and hurried upstairs to the attic.
Juanita greeted me at the top of the staircase with her arms folded. She held her hand out for the doll baby. I gave it to her. She examined the doll letting out an “ooo” and “ahh” dramatically.
“That doll wasn’t for you, you know that, right?” the voice wasn’t jeering, like it usually is. She lifted my doll, who I had named in my head, Yolanda, after my mother. “Look here, she even has a name on her ass.” Juanita pointed to the name stitched on the bottom of the doll. It read DEBBIE.
“Who’s Debbie?” I asked, wrapping my hair in the bonnet Mrs. Alston had given each of us.
“Whats the first thing you notice when you come into the house?” Juanita held her brush to me as a mic.
“Uh...the white couches?” I guess that was the answer since that was the first thing I noticed the night I arrived.
“No, silly girl. The picture that is in the center of the living room.” It dawned on me that she was right. There was a picture of a young, brown skinned girl that hung alone on the livingroom wall. In the picture the girl looks a bit older than Juanita. She's sporting a perfectly shaped afro too. The woman is smiling in the picture, but at times she looks sad too. Juanita told me the first night that that was the black Mona Lisa.
“What about that creepy picture?” I questioned, trying not to think about how the young girl’s eyes followed me wherever I went in the living room.
“That’s Deborah, their daughter who died. Deborah’s birthday is today, March 16th, Aubrey, just like yours. Isn’t that creepy? All of these years I’ve been here with these old people and they let you open her presents?! That’s some bullshit.” She stood up and tossed the doll onto my bed.
“Died? How old was she?” I didn't know if I wanted the doll anymore at that point.
“How am I supposed to know? I’m not Miss Cleo. Go to sleep, we have bible study in the morning.” Juanita sucked her teeth at my ignorance, hurried down the bottom of the attic steps to turn off the lights.
Juanita’s random swearing usually made me laugh. Tonight though, my mind was wrapped up like presents, wondering what happened to the Alstons’ daughter.
By the time summer came around, I had been with the Alston’s for half a year. Juanita made her third year anniversary with them that June. She never spoke of any family. She didn’t go to the Children Aid Society for family visits like I did. I overheard Mr. and Mrs. Alston discussing if they would adopt her. Juanita had other plans. She said she never got comfortable with a family, every time she did, she was moved to another home.
“Can I ask you something?” Her asking permission to ask me a question, made my ears perk up. Juanita knew everything, from boys to where Jesus grew up at, so for her to want to ask me a question was surprising.
“Sure…” we were both brushing our teeth after dinner.
“Has anyone ever been fresh with you?” The water in the sink filled the silence between us. She spit out her mouthwash and waited for my response.
“Fresh? You mean doing things that grownups do?”
“Yes, touch you. Has anyone ever touched you?” Her eyes were sadder than I’d ever seen them. I must have gotten lost in my thoughts because she tugged on my pigtails.
“Hellooooo, earth to Bronx girl.”
“Yes. Someone did but please don’t say anything.” We held out our pinkies to each other, locked them to show we promised. Juanita grabbed my hand and headed up the attic stairs. She pointed to her bed for me to sit, which I did and crossed my legs.
“So…you go first.” I felt like I was in one of those interrogation rooms with the light shining right into my face. Juanita started undoing my pigtails, carefully unwrapping my bobos and unclipping my barrettes.
“He’s my Nana’s boyfriend. We call him Ben… but his real name is Benjamin.” The feeling of the brush running through my scalp made me think of the nights I would lay on my mommy’s lap as she did my hair. “He would tell me I was his favorite out of all my cousins. He said he would buy me a, um, TV, but I had to let him…” I stopped talking at the same time she stopped brushing.
“Let me guess, you let him touch your Promise Land and he let you have a TV?” she continued brushing my hair. That’s what our pastor called our lady parts. The Promise Land. And she preached how no one is welcome there but our husbands.
“No, he would kiss me. And he made me sit on his lap a lot. I didn’t like it.” Juanita’s hands stopped moving again. I looked up to see her eyes gloss over. I’d never seen her cry.
“That's what he did to you?” she whispered. I knew she must have had a Ben. A person that made you want to lock your bedroom door at night because they were the boogie monsters in your life.
“You must have been scared of Papa when you came here…” I didn’t know if she was asking me or telling me. Truth be told, he looked a lot like Ben just older and shorter.
“Papa dont do bad things. Like, when he gave me the baby doll, he didn’t try to tell me to sit on his lap when we was alone. I was scared he would but he never tried that. He didn’t tell me to kiss him on the mouth like Ben.” I looked at Juanita waiting for her to drop the bomb of Mr. Alston trying to have his way with her. She tilted my head to the side, carefully listening and braiding my hair into cornrows straight back.
“Men aren’t the ones who do it all the time. My momma, real one not momma downstairs…did things to me.” I could hear her sniffle but I couldn’t see her face from where my head was angled. “My daddy, he knew but didn’t care much for being home with us. My momma would leave me alone, so I made friends with the girl in the apartment next to us. I did some of the things to her, and her momma called ACS on my momma.” Juanita went on to tell me about how her mother blamed her for ruining her life. She said she never had any family visit her or try to get her out of the system.
“Is your momma in jail?” I don’t know why I asked, I felt it was the right thing to do.. People like Ben and her momma deserved life if it was up to me.
“Is your daddy in jail?” She then tossed her brush on the dresser next to her bed. I let my fingers over my fresh cornrows. She was done and reached over and held a mirror up for me to see my new hairstyle.
“I look like Queen Latifah from Set It Off,” I giggled, purposely ignoring Juanita’s question. Mrs. Alston would never let us watch a movie like that. If it didn’t teach about Jesus it was not allowed in the house.
“Answer me. Is your daddy in jail?” I looked up from my reflection and could see her staring with no expression on her face. Her eyes were puffy.
“No, my daddy isn’t locked up, he’s dead.”
“How?” Her question forced me to remember back to the day I got the news. I refused to let Juanita see me cry.
“How? I’ll tell you how when you tell me what happened to Deborah.” I smiled a slick smile, knowing she probably thought I forgot about asking. Mrs. Alston called us to dinner before Juanita could protest my negotiation. She stuck her tongue out, raced down the steps, and cut the lights off.
My family visits were every two weeks. They were nice, I mean when my mommy actually decided to show up. The days she didn’t, I would cry, and in return get a happy meal from Heather. I was sick of happy meals and as good as the Alstons treated me, I was sick of not being home. I missed staying up late watching old movies like Crooklyn and anything with Pam Grier. I missed sneaking a beer out of the fridge with my cousins while the adults had their domino games. Aunt Sheryl would bring my cousins to see me on the days she could get off--which wasn’t often. Though the visits were two hours, saying goodbye was something we never could get used to. My soft cries would turn into kicks and screams to stay one more hour.
When the yearly review of my care plan came around it was held three days before Christmas. Mrs. Alston and Mr. Alston piled us into the car and we headed to Manhattan earlier than usual, to beat the traffic in the snowstorm. The city looked like a big funnel cake that God sprinkled sugar on. It was beautiful. I was so excited to see what the social workers would say. I felt in my heart that I would go back to my momma for Christmas. That’s all I wrote Santa about in school that month.
The meeting started at noon sharp. There were chairs that formed a circle in the middle of the room. I sat next to Mrs. Alston. The room smelled of coffee and bagels. Everyone spoke in hushed tones until Heather walked in with her supervisor. Every seat was filled except for one. My mother had not shown up to the meeting. I glanced at the door nervously, praying this wouldn’t be like most of my family visits. Everyone sat in the circle, occasionally enjoying their refreshment and introducing themselves. It was Mrs. Alston’s turn.
“Good afternoon, my name is Louise Alston. I am 82 years young.” she giggled. “ I’ve been a foster mother for over fifty years. Aubrey is my latest child--a sweet child and I am her foster mother.” She smiled and nodded gracefully then looked down towards me. I followed suit.
“My name is Aubrey. I’m, uh, I’m ten years old. I live in Saint Albans, Queens with Momma and Papa.” Everyone smiled those plastic smiles while Mrs. Alston patted my knee with satisfaction. Heather was in the middle of discussing the Plan of Action when suddenly the door flew open. My mother stumbled into the room. She was wearing a gray jacket that seemed to hold the smell and stain of every drink she’d had the night before. The red boot on her left foot seemed to have broken its heel. Once her eyes locked with mine she started smiling. Something was different though. She was missing one of her bottom front teeth. The frozen smiles on everyone’s faces had now slowly, like a wave, turned into frowns. Heather stood up first.
“Um, excuse me. Where is security? We cannot have Ms. Williams here like this. She is not, clearly, ...“ I jumped up from my chair and ran to my mother. I hugged her waist and turned around heading to the ladies’ room down the hall. Once inside I shut and locked the door behind us. My mother headed straight for the toilet. She coughed several times then threw up what must have been last night’s dinner. I turned my head away, in disgust and also to hide the tears falling from my eyes. I wanted to be her mother at that moment. I wanted to rock her and sing lullabies that she used to sing me before bedtime when we lived in Harlem. As soon as she was done, I handed her the loose roll of tissue that sat on the sink. She wiped her mouth, then she sat down on the floor and cried. Her whole body shook, her cries reminded me of the nights we didn’t have no place to sleep but in her car.
“I’m sorry mommy.” I thought I whispered it but she heard me.
“No! He should have stayed home. Why didn’t he stay home ‘Brey? Your father should be here!” I could tell she played this moment over and over in her head. It felt as if she didn’t even see me in the bathroom. She was screaming into her hands. I couldn’t hear the rest of her words because there was sudden loud banging on the door.
“Someone is in here,” I yelled, hoping the person would see there two other bathrooms on this floor. The banging continued. I swung the door open to be face to face with Heather.
“We are in here, what the fuck!” my mother yelled from behind me. Her mascara had run and dried on her face. She found her way to her feet. She stumbled towards the door, catching her balance by holding on to the sink. Heather’s eyes were dark green with anger, but she could hear mother needing me. She put up her hand, cleared her throat and mouthed five minutes. I closed the door, locked it, and turned on the water at the sink. I splashed water on my face then on my mother’s. The coldness stunned her and she popped her eyes wide open. She looked at me alarmed like it was our first time seeing one another for the day. Once she realized where she was again, she began to sob.
“They want to take you from me, ‘Brey. I can’t have that. You are my daughter! Mine!.” Her words slurred. Her lips were stained with red lipstick she must have wiped off hours ago. I held her face with both my hands and kissed her cheeks. She was a beautiful mess.
“Mommy, what happened?” I questioned her but I already knew the answer. She knew the meeting was today, so she got her “fix” as she would call it. It wasn’t a matter of what, but a matter of when. My mother was a super woman but crack her kryptonite. They told her she couldn't have a weak moment because of her drug tests. I knew she would buckle, but this was the hardest I saw her fall. She promised me she was keeping away from that stuff.
“’Brey, my baby, I'm so sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” She cried so hard her nose began to run again. I wiped her nose and made her cough three good times. She cleared the cold in her chest.
“We won’t let them; we won’t let them take me forever, mommy. Now come on, swish some water in your mouth and splash some more water on your face again. I got some spray and lotion here in my bookbag.” I reached into the bag I brought and also fished out Juanita’s brush. I made her take off her shirt and turn it around. It was cleaner on the other side, and it would have to do for the duration of the meeting. I brushed my mother’s matted wig, wondering if this one was Whitney, my favorite.
[to be continued]