Yasmin’s Collapsed World
Yasmin's Collapsed World
by Patrick Sylvain
My dad often said that love and hate exist in the same kernel, but Mom would correct him, playfully insisting that they are but the reverse sides of a medallion. My parents’ flippant bantering would always draw a chuckle from me, even in the darkest of days. Life, for a moment, was sweet and pleasant. It was only the jolting moments that could flip a medallion or burst open a kernel to reveal the images it was holding.
I keenly remember that when I got home the house was filled with the aroma of basil tomato sauce with garlic. There were two aluminum pots simmering on the gas stove, and I knew my father was making chicken with pasta, one of my favorite dishes. Since Mom’s passing, about four months prior, Dad had been taking care of me and doing most of the cooking. Although I could manage in the kitchen, Dad insisted on taking over the housework. It was just the two of us. Well, there was also Myrtho, the maid who did the laundry and other cleaning chores, but I wasn’t very close to her since she was relatively new and I really didn’t care about getting close to anybody.
When I entered the house, the back doors were open and sea breezes wafted in and out, keeping the room cool. I noticed Dad’s pipe and could see the left side of his body rocking in his special chair. He was alone with his pipe and his book. On Sunday afternoons when Mom was around, after his customary swim and grilled seafood lunch, we would all sit on the back porch and read as the sun streaked salty lines across his taught brown skin. To me, that was paradise, and that’s how I believed most people lived. There were certainly no beggars wandering around.
I still had my backpack on and was moving toward the stairs when Dad stopped rocking, got up, and moved in my direction. I pretended not to see him and went up to my room, my sanctuary.
“Young lady,” he said in a calm and even tone. I ignored his call because I was still upset. “Young lady. Yasmin, I made your favorite dish, and it’s ready.” I still could not answer. “How much longer are you going to keep this up?” Dad finally asked with hurt buried in his throat.
I knew he’d been trying really hard to be nice to me, but I couldn’t bring myself to forgive him, despite his cooking my favorite meals and paying more attention to me. All his efforts, well intentioned as they might have been, could not make up for the fact that he didn’t pick mom up that night from the Juliens’. He knew that Mr. Julien wasn’t a good driver and that the road to the south coast was slick and winding, especially on nights when it rained.
Since Mom’s death, I’d occasionally let it slip out that he should have picked her up. Two nights ago, Dad lost his cool and yelled at me from the top of his lungs. I went to bed crying. Since then, he’s pretended that nothing is wrong, that there are still three of us who live here, and that he bears no responsibility whatsoever for her death. He’s taken to singing to announce dinner, as if his singing would make a difference.
As soon as I reached my room, I pulled a Gary Victor book down from the shelf and buried myself in the text. At some point I finally realized that I was reading the same sentence over and over without it registering.
“Do you want to come and eat with me? I’m starving.” Dad had apparently been at my door for a few minutes. His words seemed hollow. I remained silent, and he simply looked at me with pain in his eyes, then shrugged, raised his eyebrows and took in a deep breath before he slowly walked away.
I wanted to thank him and tell him how much I loved him, but I allowed anger to get a hold on me. I started yelling at him with tear-filled eyes.
“You could have saved Mommy. You could have saved her… you could have…” Dad, in a very calm way, walked back toward me and stood there without saying a word. When I looked at him, he had teary eyes and he reached out to touch my shoulder and then my head as he whispered: “Yaz, I’m sorry and I am also hurt. Your mom was my best friend, my partner and my better half—we are both suffering and you cannot go on blaming me for something I did not know could have happened. So, please, stop blaming me and be strong. I’m sorry Yaz, but we need each other.”
When I looked at him, I knew there were more words he wanted to say, but the muscles in his throat clenched as he bit down his lower lip. I was not happy seeing him suffering as he was, but I couldn’t stop myself from blaming him, and I simply wanted Mom to be back, to be with us the way we once were. The way we were connected through the arts. Dad was a painter and a writer; Mom was a photographer who worked for foreign news agencies. On Sunday afternoons, as I learned to paint as well as take pictures, they both would teach me how to capture and use light to illuminate my subjects. Dad would always say, “Let the lead of the pencil whisper on the page.” Mom would kiss my dad on the forehead and then walk over to kiss me. Afterwards she would whisper in my ears her own words of wisdom: “Listen to your dad, even nature loves his renditions of her.”
I closed my eyes for a second, trying to conjure up a calming image. A dark circle with sparkling light spun out and transformed into a bluish wave. I felt my heartbeat slowing down. A black woman wearing a long white dress was surfing the waves. She was very steady, as if standing on land. As she moved closer to me, I noticed it was my mother holding a large photograph. As she was handing me the photo, she said in her soft and reassuring tone: “Yaz, once you go into the darkness, you will never be able to come back. Remember, your dad and I were always your light, as you are ours.” When I took the picture from her, I realized it was her favorite. It was a photo taken of the three of us sitting on the back steps facing the ocean as the sun was setting. Mom sat between Dad’s legs who was combing her hair, and I sat between Mom’s legs who was braiding my hair. I was holding a black doll that Dad had given me for my birthday. I smiled and then looked up to thank my mom. I saw an explosion of light move out into tiny flares. I felt a stream of tears on my face.
I got up from the bed and slammed the door. The bookshelf rattled and one of my dolls fell to the ground. The black one that Dad had given me. I held it tight against my chest. I then gathered up several books lying on the bed, including the Gary Victor, and flung them at the door. Instead of calming my self down and seeking Dad for help, I went deeper into the dark.
I don’t suppose that what happened next was in anyway a celestial response to my failing respect for my father, my ready assignment of blame to something—someone—who was without question as pained as I was over the death of Mom. But at that moment, to my young sensibilities, it seemed as if God was angry with me. All of a sudden, my bed started shaking, the bookshelf tipped over, bringing my framed pictures violently crashing to the ground. By the time Dad grabbed me and ran outside with me, my bed, chair, books and a few other pieces from my room had tumbled out onto the yard. When the shaking subsided, the back wall of the second floor had collapsed. I remember hugging my dad so tightly that our bodies became one in a tremble of fear. I’m not sure how many times that I told him that I loved him. It was ceaseless, almost like a scratched disc that kept looping the same phrase.
Some minutes passed. As we cried and held each other, Myrtho came running like a mad woman, with glaring wide eyes and agitated hand movements as she spewed to us the terror that she saw down the road: flipped cars, split roads, caved-in hillsides, crushed bodies, and clouds of dust chocking the air. She told us about our friends’ houses by the ocean, most of them collapsed. There were twelve houses that formed our neighborhood, and ten of them; ten beautiful and newly built two-story permanent and vacation homes had buckled like toys. Ten of them gone. Ten dreams, and ten labors of love crushed in seconds of fury. As Myrtho described the devastation, I became too afraid to think of my best friends, Hervé and his twin sister Jeanne. My eyes quietly surveyed the yard. The house for the most part was still standing and only the side wall of the upper floor of my bedroom had crumbled. I noticed the strewn books and my oak chest resting on the ground like somebody had placed it there, unscratched.
It was just a few days ago, on New Years Day, that Hervé and Jeanne helped me clean and polish the wood in my room. It was our family’s custom to thoroughly clean the house on January 1st to welcome the New Year and start anew. There it was, staring at me amongst the debris from my room, the oak chest with its luster, keeping my mom’s letters, photographs, and my journals safe. My head felt heavy as I realized how pent-up I had been and how silly I had been toward my dad as death made its visit through our town.
During that afternoon of wailing and bitter tears, it was Myrtho who didn’t know what or whom she had lost. Hervé and his family came running to us like ghosts were chasing them. Even after the time our nerves became somewhat settled, Myrtho’s face and frantic pacing signaled the waves of worries she harbored inside. I knew it would have been wrong to ask her to look for news about our other neighbors. While we were thankful to be alive, when I looked into Hervé and Jeanne’s parents’ eyes, there was a fear of death present. During the years that I’d heard Mr. Paul speak, I had never heard him stammer. That afternoon, he did, while Mrs. Paul, with tear-filled eyes, touched the back of his neck to calm him down.
I stood next to Dad for a while, not wanting to let go of his strength. I watched his eyes surveying the damage, and then he pulled out his pipe from his pocket and lit it up. He was stoic like a general leading his troops to a final battle. I took in a deep breath, centered myself, and said to Hervé, “We are still alive, right? We’ll be alright.” Dad looked at me and smiled. After he took in a few puffs from his wooden pipe, he then placed his right arm over my shoulder. “This house was your mom’s dream house. We’ll take care of each other, and it will be rebuilt. Breathe in life, and afterwards, we’ll go salvage what we can for our neighbors. Sak vid pa kanpe. An empty bag cannot stand. Let’s eat!” §
Patrick Sylvain is a poet, writer, translator, photographer, and academic. He is on faculty at Brown University’s Center for Language Studies. He has published in several anthologies, academic journals, books, magazines and reviews including: African American Review, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, International Journal of Language and Literature, Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, The Best of Beacon Press, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse, and others.