BY: SHANNON ROBERTS
Every Sunday Leisha went to Aunt Bri’s apartment to do the laundry. She’d hop on the 6 train with her Ma and her brother, Dwayne. She and Dwayne carried bulky laundry bags while Ma carried her phone and clicked at it with acrylic nails. Ma was usually talking to men—every few weeks, Leisha would peep over Ma’s shoulder and sleuth out a new name. She always got scolded for that.
By the time the three of them arrived at the apartment building, Leisha’s arms were sore from the weight of the dirty clothes. They walked up the entrance steps, passing two men smoking on the stoop. Ma entered the door code to the building’s entrance. “Bring those to the basement and then come up,” she said. “You remember the apartment code?”
“Yup!” Dwayne said. He headed to the basement with Leisha behind him, the heavy laundry propelling them downstairs.
When they got there, a man wearing a robe and slippers was folding his clothes. He peered at the two of them over his glasses. There were five washers and dryers and the only one not being used was beside the man. Dwayne and Leisha stepped over puddles on the concrete floor and threw their bags on top of the washer.
They’d been carelessly filling the bag during the week, so it toppled over. Leisha couldn’t catch it in time before some of her shirts and socks fell out, along with a bra: polka dot with excessive padding.
“Gross!” Dwayne shouted. He darted upstairs while Leisha scrambled to hide the cheap bra and escape the man’s eyes that found their way to her chest.
She caught up to Dwayne on the fourth floor where he stood in front of Aunt Bri’s apartment door. He mumbled, “What the heck was the code again?”
“Move, I’ll put it—”
He slapped her hand away and puffed his chest. “I want to do it.”
She told him the code.
“There they are!” Gary B. proclaimed when Dwayne swung the door open and pranced in. Gary B. was Aunt Bri’s boyfriend. From his seat on the couch, he reached for the remote to lower the TV volume. He was watching a boxing match. The ring girls announced round five in their metallic bikinis. Ma and Aunt Bri tore the coupons from flyers at the kitchen table.
Gary B. didn’t waste a second to flatter Dwayne. “Would you look at that! A new haircut, D? You’re going to have to fight off all the girls!”
“Watch him be just like his Granddad,” Aunt Bri said laughing, “You know he was a roadrunner, right?”
“What’s that?” Dwayne asked, a smile crawling to his face, anticipating a compliment.
Ma held up an irritated hand and said, “Oh, never mind. No son of mine will be like him, taking care of none of his kids.”
Aunt Bri muttered, “It was only a joke.”
When Ma wasn’t around, Aunt Bri and the rest of Leisha’s aunts and uncles would go on and on about Granddad. Their memories of him were so vivid, it was as though he were alive just yesterday. They’d name all of their half-siblings and speculate that there were more they didn’t know about. They told the same old stories, but no one ever got bored.
Except for Ma. She’d only mention Granddad after a glass of wine or two. On rare occasions, she’d show Leisha his photo, kept in the Bible. “It’s always on John 1:9,” Ma said.
The photo was grainy and had a water stain, but it was all they had to recall his face. Ma told Leisha that he had held her a few times, not that she remembered; he was gone before she could walk. In the photo, he basked in the summer sun wearing a wife-beater and a smile. He looked more like Leisha than Ma—his skin was the same smooth caramel, and their eyes both gleamed bright. He looked happy but confused. Leisha wondered if he was drinking when the photo was shot.
“He’d pour this much vodka and only this much juice. When the glass went up, it only came down when it was empty,” Aunt Bri liked to recall. Sometimes Leisha recited that one to her friends, but not the other stories. Never the ones about her half-aunts and half-uncles, or that her Granddad was a “playa-playa.”
Leisha didn’t see her friends on the weekend very much after they moved to the apartment that didn’t have a laundry room. She didn’t mind going to Aunt Bri’s because it was a little nicer than where she lived, but it was too cramped when Gary B. showed up.
“You look pretty with your hair like that, Leisha,” Aunt Bri said, but Leisha knew she was just being polite since they fussed over Dwayne’s hair and hers was stuck in two frizzy buns. She wasn’t pretty like the other girls in her class. Boys her own age never noticed her.
But she caught Gary B. looking at her, licking his dry lips. “Can we go to the park?” Leisha asked.
Sometimes Ma would let her go to the park, but only if she brought Dwayne. He was younger, but a boy, so he could protect her. He was the last person she wanted to spend more time with, but at least she didn’t have to listen to them boast about him any longer. Besides, when he was with her, the jerks hanging out on the street didn’t look at her so much.
But no guy on the way to the park was creepier than the man who lived in her apartment building. Whenever Leisha encountered him by herself, he’d call her beautiful or gorgeous. Once he offered to buy her dinner, but he didn’t invite Ma or Dwayne, so she said no. All he said when Dwayne was with her was “hello.”
On their way to the park, Dwayne walked on the side closest to the street where cars sped by. Buses blared their horns and pigeons flew away when they got too close. Uncle Clay told him to always walk on that side when he was with a female. It was the right thing to do, but it forced Leisha closer to the bums who hung out on the stoops.
“Lookit, another one.” Dwayne pointed at a new coffee shop called Beans & Do’. “How much more coffee do they need? It all tastes the same anyway.”
A girl exited wearing a denim jumper. Tucked under her arm was a skateboard, and she held an iced coffee with her free hand.
“What’s with those White girls and those styles?” Dwayne said.
Leisha punched him in the arm and glared. She sneaked a look to make sure the girl didn’t hear him. “Pipe down, shorty.”
“Look who’s talking? I ought to start wearing stuff like that.”
Dwayne wore a hoodie that was a size too big, sweats, and mud-stained Converse. All hand-me-downs from their cousin.
“No use wasting good clothes. I’ll save you the trouble of tossing them,” Ma had told Aunt Joanne with a shrug. But when she hung them in Dwayne’s closet, she seemed relieved. Later that day she’d told Leisha, “Got to make it seem like you’re doing them the favor!” Ma admired the Nike sweatshirt Dwayne ended up wearing almost every day. Then she looked at Leisha and her smile vanished—none of the cousins around her age were girls, so Ma had to spend money on her clothes.
A couple in their twenties turned the corner. The guy wore a white T-shirt that was probably more expensive than it looked; the girl had a piercing in her nose like a bull. Leisha gasped when saw the outline of the girl’s nipples pressed into the cotton of her blouse. Her breasts bounced up and down with each step.
When Leisha started growing…those, she didn’t want to wear a bra. Because it meant they were real and that they would only keep growing. Instead she wore tank tops under her shirts and lots of layers. But when it was too hot to hide under a sweatshirt, her classmates asked, “What happened to your bra?” The small hills and highlight of her nipples were too much to ignore. They were neither edgy, nor fashionable. She had to resort to wearing bras that ended up in her laundry bag.
“Uncle Clay says that White people think they created those styles, but they just stole ideas from Black people.”
“Whoever came up with them is stupid,” Leisha said.
“Well, I ain’t complaining. Next thing we know, maybe everyone will be topless.”
She punched him in the arm.
“Ow! PTS much?”
“God. It’s PMS, you asswipe.” Leisha made sure no adults heard her say that.
“I’m telling Ma!” he shouted, his voice jumping in octaves. They both knew Ma was always harsher on her.
“Whatever…” Leisha hoped that he’d forget by the time they returned.
The park was always smaller than she remembered There were monkey bars, a jungle gym, and a row with four swings. Everything was new. Leisha liked to fantasize that it was all hers when no one else was there. That it was her backyard, like families had in the suburbs. The blacktop had bright blocks of green and red. The paint wasn’t even chipped yet.
Leisha pushed the metal gate open and Dwayne jetted past her and launched himself onto a swing. He took flight, willing it to go higher and higher, but it wouldn’t ever be enough for him until he was in the clouds. Leisha figured he could. He could make it all the way up there, but she’d never leave the ground.
A group of older teenagers sat at a table smoking cigarettes and playing on their phones.
Leisha abruptly changed her route and ducked down under a frog statue. If she pulled her knees in and tucked her head, it was big enough to hide her from the view of passersby.
She always did like the frog statues. There were also seal and hippo statues, but the frogs were solemn, like overseers protecting the perfect new playground. Day and night, they watched with wide eyes. The hippos looked as if they’d rather be frolicking, like the seals who endlessly laughed and clapped. They hadn’t a care in the world.
Ma didn’t understand about the frogs. When Leisha told her about them, Ma had said that frogs were “witch’s puppets.” But how could they be evil? They always made her feel safe.
Last Thanksgiving when all of her aunts, uncles, and cousins were at Aunt Bri’s for the holiday, Leisha sneaked to the park once the grownups were too drunk to notice or care that she was missing. As soon as she left the building, she found Gary B. on the stoop, smoking with a can of beer in his hands. He always drank more than anyone.
He slurred, “How you doin’?” and the stoop suddenly felt so small. The smell of beer and gin oozed from his pores. Through the open window of the fourth floor, she could hear her aunts and uncles howling with laughter. Her heart thudded and her skin crawled, getting sweaty because, she realized, she was alone with Gary B.
She tried to slide past.
“Give me a kiss,” he said. Then he leaned in, not toward her cheek, but to her lips.
She turned her head quick enough for him to miss. She didn’t look back when she ran down the block wiping his saliva off her cheek with the crew neck of her shirt.
A dad and two boys entered the park. The teenagers shuffled uncomfortably before putting their cigarettes out and gathering their things. The man looked at her and Dwayne and smiled. They were probably new to the neighborhood.
The boys were about her brother’s age and joined him on the swings, making the fourth one look terribly lonely, as the only thing moving it was the wind. They challenged each other to go higher.
The dad leaned against the jungle gym and watched, and Leisha wondered what her own dad looked like. Sometimes Ma’s boyfriends would visit, but they never stayed long. Which was fine. She never liked them very much anyway. Leisha stared into the frog’s stone eyes considering what it would be like to have a man in the house every day. Would he protect her?
Ma always had bad things to say about her own dad, Leisha’s Granddad. One night when she was on her third glass of wine, she told Leisha something she would only tell Aunt Bri. “I know that bastard left with all of the money for his other wife’s kids. If he left the money for us like he said he would, we would be able to afford a real apartment.” She pulled her lips in a tight line and her cheeks began to flush, but that might have been from the wine. “Forget it. Forget I said that.” She huffed, went to her room with the glass, and slammed the door. Leisha heard the lock click.
Leisha hoped that what Ma said about Granddad wasn’t all true. Her aunts and uncles always found him to be funny, but also thick-skinned. He drank a lot, but it seemed like he could do anything despite that. Nothing scared him. Leisha didn’t tell Ma, but from what she’d heard, she thought he was kind of cool.
Leisha watched her brother go as high as the swing would allow, watched him jump. He stumbled and winced, but didn’t let out a cry—that wouldn’t be manly. Uncle Clay called him a wussy the last time he whined. Dwayne held back wails as he kicked Leisha’s leg, but not hard enough for her to retaliate. “I’m done. Ready?”
“Did you see how high I went? So much better than those kids.”
“Yeah, you’re alright.”
“Just ‘alright’? Why don’t you hop on and show me up, then?”
Leisha considered it for a second. The thought of flying, untethered by a bra or by perverse eyes watching until she flew out of sight.
“Let’s hurry up. I want to sneak up on Ma and Auntie with their girly talk. I’ll race ya!” Dwayne said.
He took off. Leisha didn’t even speed up.
Gary B. was smoking on the stoop when she got there. Dwayne was hunched over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. “What are they talking about today?” her brother asked, like an elderly woman gossiping about young people.
Gary B. laughed and looked up toward the fourth floor. “Wouldn’t you like to know? Probably just the boring stuff anyway. Money, cleaning.” He shrugged. “Now tell me about that basketball game…”
Leisha had been there. Her brother’s team lost, but he scored on a penalty and got a three pointer. Big deal. Ma was swiping on Tinder for most of the game until that one shot.
When she entered the apartment, Leisha overheard Aunt Bri and Ma in the kitchen, “It won’t be like this forever. You’ll get a better job, or maybe a new boyfriend…” Leisha closed the door quietly behind her.
“It was a joke, that last date,” Ma said. “He had nothing interesting to say, and when it came to the check, his card declined! He paid in cash, whatever, but that was humiliating. Then, he had the nerve to ask if I wanted to come over. Ugh.”
Every once and a while, the girl in their apartment building would stay over with Leisha and Dwayne. Ma would say that she was going to dinner with Aunt Bri. Leisha always said, “Ok,” but she knew Ma was seeing some guy.
“You can’t make that stuff up!” Aunt Bri laughed. “Any luck with that job search?”
It was silent for a moment. Ma must be rolling her eyes. “It’s slow. No callbacks. I just need someone stable for a little while so I can get on my feet. You know, get some new clothes, get my hair done…”
Leisha’s heart sank when she realized that someday she’d have to go on dates with men. They’d want her to go to their house, alone. She pressed her back against the door.
“That’s your prerogative, you know.”
“Well it’s not so easy for me,” Ma said. “At least you have a man to take care of you.”
“That’s not even what I meant. I’m just trying to say that…”
The door hit Leisha when Gary B. and Dwayne pushed though. Patting her shoulder, Gary B. gave her a knowing look before announcing: “The gang’s all back! Enough of your girl talk.” She followed Gary B. and Dwayne into the kitchen where the two ladies were drinking wine.
“That was fast,” Ma scolded. She was ready to give Aunt Bri a piece of her mind.
“It was long enough,” Aunt Bri said. “Why don’t you get the laundry, Leisha?”
They never asked Dwayne to fetch the laundry. Leisha went downstairs alone to move the clothes to the dryer: the bras that suffocated her chest, Dwayne’s hand-me-downs, and the clothes Ma wore to attract men.
While she threw the wet clothes into the dryer, she imagined herself on the swing, kicking her legs and pushing herself higher and higher. Even higher than Dwayne. Instead of looking her up and down, the men would applaud, and so would everyone else. The loudest cheer would be Ma’s.
Shannon Roberts is a social media ambassador for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She received her bachelor’s degree from Manhattanville College where she was also a student-athlete. Her short story “Lifeline” was published in NAILED Magazine. She enjoys practicing yoga and early morning fitness.