My mother’s best friend died today. Today, Tuesday at 4:11p.m. she died. Her husband called the house but Grace wasn’t home. The waiting was the hardest part. What do you do while you’re waiting to tell your mother that her best friend in the whole world is dead? I can’t cry, even though I feel I’m supposed to. Her husband cried so loud he sounded like a symphony of sorrow.
Her name was Sauda, which means dark complexion in Swahili. Sauda’s name is the only name on our street that makes sense. She was the brownest black person in our entire neighborhood. I’m the brownest person in my family and everyone says I get that from my father’s side that I never get to see; but Sauda was the brownest person I’ve ever seen. And she was pretty. Her skin was stained a chestnut brown with copper bulbs that highlighted her cheeks. Crimson streaks would surface in the heat of the day and ebony rings circled half moons around her eyes. She looked as if she’d been dipped in ink and covered in thick brown glaze. Curvy but not fat with clothes that tied her up like brass ribbons. Sauda was the brownest black person in our neighborhood, and she was the prettiest person I’d ever seen.
Grace says Sauda was born in Africa but moved to California when she was just a little girl. Her father was a doctor back in Kenya but when they came here he could only get a job as a janitor and then a factory worker. Sauda’s only daughter Imani is two years older than me and she once claimed that she was a direct descendant from royalty because she had true African blood in her. She said my blood was mixed with white people’s blood because my hair was too fine to come from pure black ancestry. I told her to shut up because I’m the brownest black person in my family due to my father’s side that I never get to see. If I wasn’t black how come my hair crinkles up like a curly fry when I forget my umbrella in the rain and how come when I wash it, it shrinks two inches each time like the old people in the nursing home the sixth grade class has to visit at Christmas? And so it was settled. We were both African Princesses. We pricked our fingers and mixed royal bloodlines to make official our nobility.
Many evenings Sauda would invite us into her den to drape our heads and shoulders in bright kente and elegant silk. We listened to jumbled fragments of African tales told by Sauda’s father who came to live with them when he got the disease that makes you forget things, sometimes even who you are. We played dress up on Fridays although we never really looked the part, but Saturdays were our day of redemption. Saturdays were our dance days, which revealed a stirring of the soul like bare feet on the hot sands of the Sahara.
Sauda would choreograph elaborate routines and all the girls in the neighborhood would practice until we got every turn synchronized and every count right. Even Lisa next door, who couldn’t dance at all, would play a part in our Soul Saturdays. Sauda declared that dancing is a device of the heart and not the body. So Lisa, full of enthusiasm but rhythmically hopeless, was designated by Sauda as our dancing muse. Before every performance Lisa would run around us in circles flailing her arms and rotating her hips as if balancing an imaginary hula-hoop on her tiny waist and buckling knees. On the fourth Saturday of each month we would perform for the old ladies who sit on porches, coughing, cursing, and swapping bible verses while smoking Camel’s and sipping gin. When we finished they would clap and high-five each other talking in a virtual scream about, “back in the days” when their hips would spin out of control. We took them back to a place where they can only reach in their minds, but for us we were pirouetting forward, twirling our way to a better life.
Sometimes during the summer when the nights seemed hotter than the days and we slept in tanks and underwear with windows open and thin sheets for covers, Sauda would sit on her porch strumming the strings of her guitar and singing poetry into the damp night. Her voice was almost hypnotic, drawing us out of our homes and onto her front lawn. Young girls with babies of their own would rock them to sleep to the tune of Sauda’s sonnet. On these nights Grace would dig out her old poems. She kept them in a box in the top of her closet that suggested don’t touch even though she never told us so. On these nights Sauda would sing Grace’s poetry and Grace would become free. No bills, no collection agents, no cleaning, no scoldings, no homework to check, no lectures to give, just Sauda, Sauda’s Spanish guitar, Grace’s don’t touch box and freedom. On these nights Sauda’s husband would fall in love with her all over again. On these nights he wouldn’t drink after work, and he no longer wore the look of a man whose dreams had disappointed him. On these nights he would look at Sauda and soak in the beauty we all saw each day. His eyes would squint as if trying to awake from a dream and his lips would inevitably curve into a grin so unfamiliar to his face.
Today my mother’s best friend died. It’s 5:30 and Grace won’t be home for at least another hour. I’m waiting to tell her and I suppose I should be crying. Prose cried for over an hour and is now sitting under the dining room table with her face swollen like her cheeks are filled with an entire pack of Bubblelicious gum. Imani is away for the summer visiting her cousins in Arkansas. I wonder who will tell her. I think about Imani and I want to cry for her. Sauda died of cancer, but we wouldn’t find that out until later. She just couldn’t breathe in life anymore. She gave in or she gave up. I wonder if Grace will be angry. Grace hates quitters.
Grace will now be home in about 25 minutes. I want to turn on the television but Sauda died today. I shouldn’t want to watch TV. Instead I stare out the window. Two boys are kicking rocks up the street while laughing and punching each other cheerfully. Sauda’s husband is sitting on the front porch hugging the acoustics of his wife shaped guitar. Lisa is on the sidewalk practicing her arm movements. I feel like I should tell her we won’t be dancing anymore, but I don’t. Marcus from up the street comes careening around the corner blowing his horn and swerving back and forth. He’s holding something out of his window. As he approaches I can tell it is a cigar. He’s screaming, but I can’t make out the words. I open the window and swing my legs over the sill waving in his direction. He speeds as if headed directly for the house and screams, “It’s a girl, Zora. It’s a baby girl!” Marcus’ girlfriend had a baby girl today. Tears finally roll down my cheeks.