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3rd place - Baby Girl 

by Lorenzo Herman





Spokane is beautiful in the fall. Riverfront Park looks like a rainbow as the different colors of leaves carpet its landscape. The ground looks like a handmade quilt, each color and shape adding more details to the summer's past. Hearing the leaves rattle on the ground when the autumn breeze sweeps in from the mountains can ease any pain. Up close these leaves look unattractive because they have been crinkled and dilapidated by the wind that makes them crisp and flake to the touch. But from a distance in a multitude, they make the eyes dazzle, as the different colors seem to jump right at you. One can tell when snow is coming because the pavement turns ashy white and the air is more brisk and clean. The clouds are a hazel gray that keeps the moisture in. Seagulls are few now. Some stay for pre-winter leftovers from grateful bird watchers that come to take a last look at these gentle but tumultuous fouls before they head south. As I cross Spokane Falls Boulevard they seem to follow me in the same direction like guardian angels. How I long to be carefree and fly with the wind.


Today is Halloween. Jack-o-lanterns decorate every department store window display. Boo Radley's, a gag store across the street from the park, is full of customers buying last minute costumes. There is a Jack In The Box costume displayed in the window. I start laughing at a thought while looking through the window display. A young boy stares at me. He asks me what is so funny. I look at him with his hot chocolate in hand from Four Seasons with a smudge of chocolate on his cheek. While taking out a handkerchief and wiping his chin and I tell him that I am enjoying watching the kids get ready for tonight. He says OK with that whatever smirk on his face. He walks inside the store and I turn towards Main Street. Actually I am thinking about this Halloween party I went to a few years back. Some friends and me went to the Double Tree Hotel in costume. I was a prostitute, my friend Lori was Lea from Star Wars, and our friend Jason was a vampire. The radio station had a costume contest and everyone thought for sure that Jaba the Hut would win. He was over seven feet tall and looked convincing. But this guy wearing a Jack in the Box costume took the grand prize. Everyone was shocked and they wanted a revote. But the decision was final. Jack In the Box won. Lori talked about how awful that something like Jack in the Crack (she called it that because their food gave her gas) had won. That was the night I met Kendall. Jack in the Crack was actually his coworker. As Lori and Jason gave Jack In The Crack a hard time I was swept by Kendall's charisma and striking features.





I remember our first date at Cucina Cucina, an Italian restaurant. We sat outside at one of the patio tables. The first thing I noticed about him was his long fingers. Well, you know what they say about long fingers. My mind started to go where it shouldn't have at the moment. He interrupted the thought when he asked what I did for a living. I told him that I was in charge of collections at Pitney Bowes for the past five years. The company transferred me from California a few months ago. I hated San Diego and I was ready to move. Spokane was a breath of fresh air compared to southern California. And it did not bother me that there were so many white people here. He asked why I said that. I said it is one of the top five questions that people asked a person of color when they move here so I just save them the trouble in asking the question. So I turned the table around and asked him the same questions. He sat up straight and he smiled. He had the whitest teeth I ever seen. Maybe because he was so dark, like Taye Diggs in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back ". He wore a tight white shirt that made his muscles more defined. He looked as though he stepped out of one of those fashion magazines. His eyes were pecan brown and long eyelashes. He put his arms on the table and looked directly at me. It startled me a bit because no one ever looked at me with so much confidence before. He said he was in the Air Force. I did not know there was an air force base near Spokane. He flew a jet called a refueling tanker. He graduated from Temple University and was pursuing his graduate degree at Embry Riddle in aeronautical science. He also mentioned that he did not miss his hometown Cleveland. But he does miss the diversity of a big city.


Our first date ended up being a seven-month love affair. He kept me on the tips of my toes with his enthusiasm to explore everything. I guess that came from being a pilot. I enjoyed the stories about his adventures in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. I had never known anyone who was so well traveled. Vancouver, British Columbia was my only trip outside the U.S. On our fourth month anniversary, Kendall took me to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as a surprise. I was so florid when he handed me the plane tickets in an envelope thinking it was a Hallmark card. We went to Carnival and ate at the restaurants near Ipanema Beach. We toured the Corcovada, ferried to Niteroi, dined at the Sugar Loaf overlooking the city's skyline, and danced at Club da Lua to a Brazilian jazz orchestra. There was always something going on. Kendall told me that Rio is the city that never sleeps and I could see why. We were out and about often and surprisingly neither of us was exhausted. We made love all-day and partied all night. I was living my mother's dream. Everytime Kendall held me in his arms I smiled overlooking his broad shoulders wondering how can something like this feel so good.


A few months later I came down with pneumonia and it was awful. At first I thought I was pregnant because my period was late. I panicked at the thought of bringing a child into the world unmarried. But I felt blessed when I did have my period. As it flowed I sighed in relief. But I was still sick all of the time and Kendall told me to go to the doctor. So I did. Sacred Heart Medical Hospital was within walking distance down the hill from my apartment. I stopped at Starbuck's on the way to get a Mocha Valencia. I needed caffeine to work up the nerve to go to see a doctor. I was terrified of doctors because of the needles associated with them. I don't like pain. The reception area was chilly as usual and I saw the doctor come from behind the receptionist's desk. He didn't have to call my name because I got up as soon as I saw him. He took blood from me and I squirmed like a seven year old. He asked me a lot of questions about my family's medical history. I told him it's all in my file. I told him about this rash underneath my arm and showed it to him. He asked how long have I had this and I said probably a few days. He examined it with a cautious eye. When he looked at me I knew something was dramatically wrong. Dr. Becker suggested that I stay overnight for observation. I asked why and he said the pneumonia seems to be progressing. My whole body became numb and paralyzed. But it was nothing compared to what he was going to tell me the following week after my blood results came in from the laboratory. The doctor came into the room and sat down. He said I should sit down but I wanted to stand. I told him it must be cancer. Everyone in my family gets cancer and I knew I was destined to get it but not so soon. He said no. Then what could it be then? He asked me to sit down again. This time he insisted. I sat down on the bed my feet barely touching the floor. He said I tested positive for HIV. According to my T-cell count I have AIDS.


The news hit me like a sack of bricks. Nothing seemed real anymore. How can I have AIDS? It must be a mistake. Dr. Becker suggested I get a second opinion but he ran the tests several times and he is positive about the results. I feel dead already.


Kendall arrives home late from work. He kisses me on the cheek but I do not respond. I stare out the window, watching the cars speed down the road. These drivers really don't pay much mind to the twenty-mile an hour speed zone by the park. Sometimes I wish one of them would hit someone on the road and that would be a wake-up call for speeding. Kendall pats me on the shoulder and I yell "What! "


"Are you alright baby? " I can see him stand away from me through the window. I don't know how to answer him. Am I alright? I feel numb. I'm stuck between what is real and what is not. I'm dying I tell him. I have AIDS and I don't want you to touch anymore. Just go! Please. His face is blank. I can see his lips part through the window reflection. Kendall walks slowly towards the closet. He gets h is jacket and stops at the door and looks back at me. I am still looking through the window motionless, watching cars speed across the park. I close my eyes because I cannot stand to look at him. The door closes our relationship.


*


My case manager Lucinda Reyes spots me from the red-bricked courtyard by the patio area. It is still cool enough to sit outside with a sweater. Lucinda walks in with her worn tan leather briefcase. She is always late like my mother. Her face is round and delightful, always smiling. Her gray eyes seem to pierce right through me. Her body is rather robust but fitting to her middle age demeanor. Her Spanish accent is squeaky like Rosie Perez.


While I am sipping on coffee she asks how I am doing. I finish swallowing before I answer. I smile at her. I tell her with my Barbizon modeling school grin that I am doing wonderful. Beauty pageants taught me well. Sit upright and straight and answer with a gorgeous smile showing all of my pearly whites with my head up high.


I continue to tell her it's a beautiful day and why shouldn't I feel good. Lucinda seems surprised at my response. I ask her does she expects me to live as if I am already dead. She says no. She asks about the new treatments I have been taking. I tell her that I prefer Ziagen. I do not have a lot of side effects like Crixivan. My doctor only prescribes 300 mg a day but I confess that I take 600 mg with a glass of milk. She asks if I ever eat food before taking the drugs and I say no. I don't have to eat food with these drugs. She also wants to know if I using Combuvir with the treatments. I say yes but I hate popping so many pills. They make me sick. One day I spent at least three hours on my knees before that porcelain God in my bathroom. Sometimes I feel worse than the actual AIDS related complications. And let's not talk about the cramps. I hate when my period comes. It feels like when I was thirteen years old all over again. Lucinda asks when was the last time I had a physical and I say two weeks ago. I lost another ten pounds in the last three months. But I keep telling myself I need to lose weight anyway. I can wear a six again. I tell her that I believe I look pretty damn good for someone who has AIDS. She nods her head and says I am one tough chica.


I change the subject to her job with POCAAN, an acronym for People of Color Against AIDS Network. Their main office is in Seattle and Lucinda is one woman deep manning the outreach center in Spokane. They offset the costs of my living situation through a lot of programs that help minorities who are living with the disease. I tell Lucinda that I want to thank the organization for assisting me for the past several months. When I became too sick to hold my job they help me get on public assistance and get medical treatment that I otherwise could not have afford. But I tell her that I wish there were people like me that I can talk to about this. She asks if I ever considered going to one of the support groups at the Spokane AIDS Network. I tell her that I went there once on a referral from the health district. But it wasn't for me. She asks what I mean by that. I put both of my arms on the table moving my upper body closer to her across the table. I look at her directly in the face and I reply that I am not a gay white man. Everything about this disease is centered on gay white men. I cannot relate to them. I do not have a problem with my sexuality. They seem to have more issues to deal with than I do and to be honest I don't want to be associated with them. And before you say anything I am not homophobic. I have a lot of gay friends. I rather deal with this with people like me. I know I am not the only black woman with AIDS. Lucinda says she understands but she reemphasizes that all of her clients are not willing to discuss it with other people. She has to respect their right to privacy. She asks will I be ok. I tell her not to worry about me because I know God is going to find a cure in the very near future. I have faith in that. Lucinda says she only hopes that her other clients have the spiritual motivation to keep going like me.


Lucinda drops me off at my apartment. We schedule another appointment in two weeks. As I unlock the main door to my building one of my neighbors opens it and says hello. It is Jerrod Richards who lives directly across the hall from me on the second floor. His red hair is like fire but his ocean blue eyes make his appearance subtler. His wife is a doctor in residence at Holy Family Hospital and he stays at home and takes care of their three-year son Andrew. Usually, they invite me over for dinner because they find it strange that someone like me is always alone. His wife once asked me if I was a model and I told her that I did some fashion shows in L.A. to support myself when I was going to school. Why did I ever stop she asked me and I said it's too vain and competitive. I wanted a real life with real people. But the truth was that I was afraid of rejection. Afraid that someone prettier might get the contracts.


*


Kendall and me used to go out with the Richards when were dating. When Kendall stopped coming around they did not ask what happened. I like how they respect my privacy. One day little Andy discovered one of my lesions on my neck. He asked how did I burn myself. I was so humiliated and worried that my secret was out. Connie, Jerrod's wife said she probably burned herself with one of those curling irons that he likes to play soldier with. Connie never asked me about it.


As Jerrod is walking towards his car he asks if everything is ok. I say yes quizzically. He gets in his car and he says don't hesitate to call if I ever need anything. I say I thank you as he drives away. He waves good-bye with that good man smile.


The steps creak at every step I make to get upstairs. It would be difficult for a burglar to rob this place quietly. I believe this building was built around the 1950s and the owners have done little to renovate the place. But it has character. The staircase is a dull cherry wood and the center of each step is carpeted red. Floral paintings decorate the walls with cream wallpaper. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling at top of the steps. As I walk up the steps the crystals shake and it sounds like chimes blowing in the wind. It reminds of the mellow wind chimes in Kitaro's music. The kind that makes you so relaxed that you just want to sprawl up in a blanket and fall asleep. My door is just above the staircase behind the chandelier. The lock is sometimes jammed and I have to wiggle it a bit to catch the lock to open it. Once I hear the lock snap against the threshold I hold the key in its open position and turn the knob quickly before the lock snaps back in its lock position. I am successful on the first try.


I check my messages and I get one phone call from Lori reminding me about this weekend's picnic at Liberty Park. I close the blinds in the living room and the kitchen. I sit on my black leather sofa and touch the lamp to dim the living room. There is a fireplace before me and on the mantelpiece are pictures of my family and friends. I like the picture of my mother and father, my two brothers, and me with the traditional blue background taken at Olan Mills. I will always be daddy's little girl and my brothers' angel-the one who can do nothing wrong. I am the woman my mother wanted to be before she met my father and raised a family. She is proud of what I have done with my life but her envy overshadows her true intentions to make me feel good about it. It's hard being a contemporary woman. Women cannot be careerists, a wife and mother all at the same time. Something must give. I wish that decision were clearer to me like in my mother's generation. They knew what was expected of them-whether they were in accordance with it or not. Women of the nineties were raised in the seventies when women's liberation hailed equal pay, the right to possess her body and access to do a man's job. I think I over did myself as a career woman. But we are taught that men are attracted to qualities similar to theirs.


Kendall liked that. I miss him terribly. We could have been a great pair. The first man not to be intimidated by my success. But I lost him to AIDS. He couldn't handle it. I can't hate him for it. Being with me would be like playing Russian roulette. There is a picture of him and me next to my family portrait at the Japanese gardens. I told him I was positive just a few days after that picture was taken. It was a silent break up. He didn't return phone calls and I heard he had left overseas for a new assignment just a few months later. He was the only person I told and after his reaction I have told no one else. I cannot handle anyone else I love walk out of my life.


But there is a cure. A cure to take away the pain of AIDS. Something to take away its solitude and guilt. I prayed about it for a long time and I believe God has answered my prayers. I push play on my CD player remote. I like to listen to the opera soundtrack from the movie "Diva ". When I heard this French opera singer bellow out these words I was amazed. Amazed that something that sounds like that can come from someone's mouth. It's almost too inhuman and beyond this world as we know it to have the gift of opera singing. It's truly a gift from God.


I get on my knees and pray to the Father Almighty for giving me the courage to do His will. This is how I pray. I feel the heavy burden of shame lift off my shoulders and I cry-not because I am sad but because I am about to be free. I never new liberation could feel so good. I have been blessed. I go to the kitchen and burn a stick of my favorite incense on the gas-stove flame. I put it on the incense burner and turn the flame off but I listen for the hissing sound of the stove to make sure I left the gas on. When I was kid I took pleasure in helping my daddy pump gas because I enjoyed the smell of it. He used to tease me and say that I was going to be a mechanic and I probably find a way to develop petroleum perfume.


There is a mirror above the sink between the cupboards. I wash my face and examine it. Without the make-up the black lesions are clearly visible on my chin, neck and on my left cheek. As I undress in front of the mirror more lesions appear on my breasts and shoulders. To put make-up all over the body would be a difficult task. I am pretty cautious about my appearance than apply that much make-up. The weight loss is more noticeable. The shoulder blades seem to anchor the loose skin below the neck. My breasts appear to be sagging toward my pelvis and it's not as smooth anymore. My mother used to tell me that the best gift to give a child is your milk. As I caress them I imagine breastfeeding the child that I will never have. I never thought about having children until now. What kind of mother would I have been?


The gas from the stove makes me dreamy. I dance to Diva in the kitchen and through the living room relishing the smell of Egyptian musk incense that I bought from Rings and Things. This is my last song my last dance and I am going to dance to this song like I never have before. I peak through the window blinds and I take a last look at Grand Blvd and Manito Park. Spokane is so picturesque. I dreamed about living in a place like Spokane, while growing up in National City near San Diego. I can only imagine what heaven will be like. This revelation came to me in a dream. I was praying to God to take me where no one wants to go. A place where the pain will go away. I saw this light and it didn't hurt my eyes the least bit. Its warmth was a welcome invitation to come closer but something kept pulling me back. My time had not arrived yet to take that leap of faith through the light. But I am so ready now. I can feel heaven approaching closer as my body becomes tired. I feel as though I haven't slept in years and I feel deeply exhausted. The phone rings and I hesitate to answer. I pick it up on the third ring.


"Hello? "


"Hey my baby girl ", my daddy answers with his deep heavy voice.


"What's going on Daddy? "


"I just wanted to hear your voice. It's been a long time since we've talked. I miss talking to you. Are you ok baby girl? "


I don't know how to answer that question and the smell of gas is more distinct than the incense now. I sink into my chair and want him to hold me so tight. I want to feel safe again. I begin to cry.


"What's wrong baby girl? "


"Oh Daddy if only you knew. There is so much going on right now. I don't know where to begin. "


"Let me send for you. I can have you booked on the next plane to San Diego. I'm worried about you baby girl. "


"How's mama Daddy? "


"She's doing fine as always. She's worried about you too. "


"Will I always be your baby girl Daddy, no matter what happens? "


"What's going on with you? I want to know now. What is it? "


"Just answer me Daddy! Will I always be your little girl? Will I Daddy? "


"You will always be my little girl, no matter what happens. "


"I want to help you pump gas again. You used to be so proud of me when I did that. Do you remember that Daddy? "


"I remember baby girl. You liked the smell of it too. I'm surprised you didn't turn out to be a grease monkey like one of your brothers. "


We both laugh over the phone. I love to hear Daddy's voice. He knows the right thing to say. He knows how to make me laugh.


"Daddy? "


"Yes baby girl? "


"I want to live. I don't wanna die. "


"Okay baby girl but first you have to turn off the gas nozzle and put the hose back on the pump. Ok? "


"Ok Daddy. " I walk to the kitchen and turn the burner off and I look into the mirror. For the first time I see hope in my eyes.


"Now let's go home so we can talk about it. Ok? "


"Daddy...I um. " I cannot get the words out. My lips are quivering like a pre-epileptic seizure.


"I know baby girl. It's time to come home. "

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