June 21, 2019 by The Citron Review
by A. Grifa Ismaili
(for Lilsbw & Urmi)
The first time I heard this kat read it was the mid-1990s in the foyer of John Jay Hall at Columbia University. Of course, I fell in love. He didn’t read from sheets of paper like the others. No—he shouted his poems from memory. Twelve feet tall with a six-foot afro and B-boy pants to match. This was spoken word. This was slam. This was beauty, to me.
Suddenly I hated every mournful ode I’d ever written in those stupid embroidered journals from Walgreens and CVS and the Hallmark Store. The ones everybody always bought me for Christmas and birthdays. The girlie ones, where you had to stay in the lines, so you didn’t ruin the paisley design.
The following weekend, he was going to read at Nuyorican, he announced. It was going to be his birthday slam. I went to see him with dragonflies buzzing around my insides.
Alongside a friend from school, I wandered in. The atmosphere was smoky and charged. Lean, sleek couples curled over the small, square tables. Smiles flashed through the darkness. Everything abuzz. In the back, a crowd had gathered, standing-room-only, but we meandered through, skipping the bar due to the deep holes in our pockets.
On the compact stage up front, he was a celebrity, and he sang to me. He knew when to shout, when to whisper, when to rhyme, and when to shut up for a second. Just be cool.
“I JUST EJACULATED ON YOUR BRAIN!” he shouted into the microphone.
And everyone went, “Awwww!”
We clapped till our hands stung.
“So, so awesome!” My friend beamed.
After the slam, the other sycophants brought him a piece of birthday cake from an LES bakery. I weaved in and out of the stragglers with my lumpy pants and shirt-hanger shoulders. I sidled up next to him, five foot nothin’, negative boobs, my knuckles dragging on the ground.
“That was really great,” I gurgled.
He didn’t hear me, though, looking far over my head at some other distraction. Me, miles below, with a bad dye-job that I’d bought in a crumpled box from the bodega. The kind that turns your whole head the color of marigolds. Me, at the bottom of the food chain. An acne-faced amoeba, floating amongst the tadpoles.
Until eight years later, I pop in alone and unexpected at the Bowery. The night is dismal and wet, so the open mic is muted. The bar is shadowy and low-key. In my slim, boot-cut jeans and big earrings, I somehow gather the gumption to read. Still negative boobs in my soft, fuzzy sweater, but it doesn’t matter now because butts are in. I am vanilla brown sugar loveliness, a coconut mango, shea-butter almond supreme. And then, who sidles up next to me? Sporting a dark vest, something very Poe, his picked-out afro now tamped into long, silky curls, he introduces himself as Cadillac Flowz.
“Have I seen you before?” he asks. “Do I know you…?”
I won’t give him the satisfaction of yes.
We’re both headed uptown—me, on my long trek to Washington Heights, him to the Bronx—so he rides the subway with me. I need to switch trains at 59th, but he’ll come along for the ride. He’s used to riding these clunky trains all night anyway.
At 191st, he walks me home, rounding the corner, the streets slick and glimmering in the rain. He just wants to make sure I get home safe even though for the last decade I’ve known no witching hour. The corner-store boyz go silent and give him the side-eyes when we pass. It should’ve been my ninth or tenth clue. We all glance down at the pavement, and I can sense something different in their crew—disappointment…anxiety? We’ve never spoken more than a good-evening. Gentle, half-nods of acknowledgments in our puffy jackets, yet these are my watchers. They’ve been watching me walk home by myself for years.
When he invites himself into my studio apartment, I’m stupid because I let him in. He likes the smell of my jasmine candles. That’s good to de-stress, he says. Cross-legged on the wooden floorboards, he talks deep into the night about poetry and starlight and, you know, reading all over the country, and being published, connecting with the kids. He talks about letting go and discovery and being free. Being blessed. Spiritual equality and being at one with the universe.
His long fingers bump across the tidy rows of books on my shelves. William Carlos Williams? He’s a fan. Nawal el Saadawi? Yessssssss. Camus? He’s in love. He wants to teach me about Camus. He’s professing, except he doesn’t know I have Sisyphus tattooed on the inside of my skull. He doesn’t know that me and Sisyphus have been pushing the same rock for centuries and nobody cared about us.
Please, please, please. Don’t tell us about us.
Still, he talks. He describes what it’s like to be Cadillac Flowz.
I tell him seventeen times that I have to get to bed. I have work in the morning. And finally, he exits like a poet—wistfully, missing me already, his hand to chest. He leaves me with a peck on the cheek and a telephone number.
I did call his house once.
When I asked for Cadillac, his mama hollered: “Hey Jonathan…! Telephone!”
A. Grifa Ismaili’s work has been published in Fiction International, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and Press 53’s Everywhere Stories, among others. Her screenplay, It Takes a Village, was a finalist at the Nashville Film Festival and won a merit award at the International Film Festival for Peace, Inspiration and Equality. Currently, she resides in the great boot of Louisiana.