My Harlem Boy is back.
We cross Broadway down 125th and his body language shifts, broad shoulders swaying to the beat on the radio.
I’ve been his passenger for 11 years now, riding shotgun since the beginning.
Me, who grew up on a steady diet of shopping centers and grass stains. We came from two different circles, mine sheltered and privileged, his– rough around the edges and unapologetic. From the Venn diagram of our upbringings, we squeezed ourselves into the smallest sliver of overlap, and have been living there ever since.
It all began with a Crackhead serenade. Outside of his apartment on 114th street, in our first car–my black Honda with a broken air vent–the early morning beckoned a special breed. Security guards returning from their overnight shifts, crazy in love kids like us, and her. She walked right up to our window, and took a good, hard look. Oh, you in love, she told us. Mm Hmm…yup. You in love. Then, she began singing.
We looked at each other on that hot summer morning, three weeks into a new life that came with finding each other, and we took it. Our own private concert, by a toothless woman on the sidewalk. She may have been high, and homeless, but she saw us- and we took it. It was one of those moments that you can feel becoming a memory, right as it happens, without needing the retrospect.
That woman, she gave us that moment, that memory, that fossil of time.
The typical progression of love came next: sharing stories, sharing a kiss, sharing an apartment, then a wedding day. And of course, sharing children. Through the years, I’ve watched those broad shoulders bring 10 bags of groceries up five flights of steps in one trip. They’ve carried box after box of our labeled belongings to each new place we decided to call home. Afternoons, out with the dog, he would reach up and pass me Starbucks through our kitchen window, where we chatted like we didn’t share a bank account and a bed. He’s brought me earplugs in sterile white recovery rooms, my body tangled in a mess of tubes and wires. He’s held both my daughter’s, one in each arm, wearing a pair of Oakleys and good posture. He needs those broad shoulders, because with them– he’s carried everything.
The broken black Honda became a black Mini Cooper and now an SUV with two car seats, empty baby wipe packs and old lollipop sticks. It’s been eleven years, and time has turned into the type of gravity that begins to bend your back toward the ground. As years pass, life piles in and crowds the love that used to exist alone. The things that weigh on you, simple things like getting a 4-year-old out the door every morning to pre-school, more complex things like genetic diseases and a nearly lethal childbirth, buying a home. Sometimes I catch him walking through the low ceilings of our apartment with a slump, slowly, like he is just trying to sift through all the responsibilities that have become us since that day we were serenaded on 114th street. They are small like chihuahuas, yapping: requests for apple juice and diaper changes and laundry that piles the day’s dirt like an avalanche in the corner. They are big like bears: falling numbers in a bank statement, a diagnosis, a blank vision for the future.
But here we are passing Amsterdam ave, and my Harlem Boy is back. His strong extended and athletic posture becomes him. He turns off Five Little Monkeys, tunes the radio to his own music, and the girls don’t complain, sensing that daddy has become something more. He glances over at his junior high school, the Booker T Washington basketball courts filled with boys of all sizes and shapes and shades. A square, caged space with two metal nets and a ball, painted with movement and life: little boys who have left their mothers at home, maybe worried, maybe relieved, maybe a bit of both. Little boys like he once was, reeking of sweat, and laughter, and anger and freedom.
My junior high was dope, he tells me. He raises the volume on the radio, the spirit in his heart.
How did I find him? A little white girl from the suburbs with a tennis racket and a sense she didn’t belong. When we drive down the winding streets of my hometown, my girls gazing at the green out the window, somehow, it has the opposite effect of 125th, and I feel myself constrict. We pass my junior high school where I think of tired mornings in biology class, Lip Slicks, and bullies. You could not pay me to go back there, not for one single day, I tell him. And my children– they take their shoes off on the stone steps of my childhood home, staring at the grass that creeps up from their toes.
But when I look at them–the result of us–I realize: here is a sum that is so much greater than its parts. Two little girls who roll down front lawns, and duck under subway turnstiles, with equal comfort, equal awe. Smiling, climbing up backyard rocks or sucking 50 cent icies on hot concrete ,while shirtless teenagers do pull-ups on the swing set bars. They’ve shaded in that Venn Diagram in its entirety, and made it theirs–this vast place to call their own, because each of our histories have become their present.
Back in the car, my girls begin dancing with their arms in the air to the the new French Montana song. Mommy look! Mommy look! Allie screams, as she bops her head left and right, repeatedly slapping the sky. Go Allie, Go Allie! We chant. Natalie joins. She’s older, more self-conscious, tries to trap her smile and keep it cool. Go natty, Go natty! The smile leaks and she looks towards to window. Now we join them, because how couldn’t we?
We become the closest thing to that couple on 114th street who has been up all night long, who ran from sleep, instead of chasing it.
I can feel the fossilized moments forming again. The moments I want my daughters to stack like Polaroids in their memory of what it meant to grow up a James. I want them to remember this freedom, this fun—no time outs, or sticker charts; I want them to remember our Harlem drives, where we all abandon being people, and become feelings. When he transforms back to the boy I met and fell in love with too fast, and me- to the passenger who can only breathe the air from a window, and embody a beat.
Daddy brings us here. He carries us through these streets.
My Harlem Boy.
We brought two worlds together, and from them, created one in which–finally–we both belonged.