His name was Ujima. And he was something beautiful. My first thoughts of him sat somewhere between heartache and jubilee. Had our fates not been decided, and the world been a bit kinder- he’d have been a known face. There was light in that smile, enough to charm millions and lead them off into somewhere dangerous, or maybe some place magical. It would be known everywhere because of how it held you and made you believe. I saw him sitting there and I believed- I believed enough to dream up big promises for us- like hope and forever. But I couldn’t believe in truth enough to save him so I made weightless promises on that autumn bench.
“My friends call me ‘Jima’ for short even though it’s just one letter off.” He smiled. “I let it go- folks is all over the place these days and as long as they calling me ‘friend’ im pretty much cool with whatever. I used to stay in these projects before my ma kicked me out.”
“She kicked you out?! Boy how old is you?”
“I’ll be 17 in two months, maybe. October coming in two months right?”
“How long you been out here?”
“This bench or just outside, period?” he teased. “close to a year.” And then after a violent cough. “She put me out close to a year ago. It was round my birthday. I remember not really celebrating it.”
I couldn’t tell the difference between his weak laughing and the wheezing that was coming from his throat. A more genuine laugh came about after clearing what was caught in there, but I couldn’t tell what he found funny. Something in it was dark and made me think he was amused by his own misery. The smile confused it and then he shook. I took a moment to exhale worry, compose my thoughts and decide what was in proceeding with this boy.
The breeze was becoming cool. That summer had started with us begging for rain and a month later I felt like Noah, beseeched with forty days and forty nights- a flood was damn near upon us. I had been sick twice- took an awful amount of time to get well and the thought was coming in that this boy may have not had the chance to recover from the storms had he really been on the street.
“How long you been on this bench?”
“ . . . long enough. I figured she’d see me and let me in if she saw me here.”
“Yea she stay up there.” He lifted a thin arm to the air and pointed at one of the windows on the tenth floor of the building in front of us. The Sursum Corda projects stood like a monument of times spent screaming and better left forgotten about. I was ten when my family moved in there and was eighteen when I managed to escape. By that time the security guards had begun to rob residents and the bodies in the laundry room were appearing more and more by the day. The halls were a foul green and the whole building brought an awful chill to the most sanctified. The walls were almost giving in on themselves and the memory of crack pipes threatened to overshadow any good. I didn’t want to think of what depths he grew in while he stayed there.
But it was in his eyes- every disappointment- every day spent running up the walls was present. The lines that outlined his frail face seemed to be trails where tears had continuously moved, like rivers and he began to look more tired to me.
“She kicked me out when I got sick. She said she didn’t have anything for me- that the world had spit on me and used me like a whore and that whatever son she had died in the streets. She didn’t want to know me anymore.” He began to himself. “She was screaming and crying at the same time.- speaking in some voice that id never heard before and when I didn’t move she picked up a knife- called me a ‘sad creature’.”
He choked on his own sadness and began to cough again- his small body shaking all over. The boy’s whole body looked in pain and he doubled over, resting his head on my lap. I removed my coat and wrapped it around him- partially to keep him warm and partially to try to ease him into any kind of comfort. He was in several places of pain. Around us the breeze began to kick up all the filth people had left. The leaves danced and all of it made a bizarre symphony. It all moved around us, occasionally crashing violently against skin- reminding us of what the world was.
“I thought you was a John at first.” He laughed, this time looking at me and not down at the shifting garbage.
“You get that a lot in this park?”
“ . . . enough to eat.”
“Does she see you sometimes?”
“Yeah. That’s part of the reason I do it here. She looks long enough to see me walk off with them and then she goes back into her world to do whatever will make her comfortable, I suppose.” He stopped to cough and wipe his face.
“I want her to see me.” That sweet voice now hardening under the weight of anger- like coal pressed- becoming a diamond of hard bitterness. “I want her to see what kind of faggot I am, let the bitch be really ashamed. I’m dying anyway.” his gaze now cold and focused on the window. He was looking for her.
“She kicked you out cause you were gay?”
“Nah, I have AIDS. You listening, pa? I would’ve liked to take a moment to understand all of what was being dropped on me more fully but he continued, despite his own tears. “They all saw. The whole Corda- saw the faggot get chased into the courtyard.”
I wrapped my arm around him more deliberately. It seemed to be the closest thing I could do to healing the boy.
“Is this ok?” I asked.
He smiled towards me. “They don’t usually ask about touching . . . I should be asking you that. You sure you want to be seen holding a whore?”
“I grew up here too. I don’t stunt none of what these folk might have to say or think. If it is anything fowl then its cause they are too small themselves to have any humanity. That’s the conclusion I came to a while back.”
“Yeah? You got out of the Corda? Why you come back?”
“My sister and her kids stay here. I come to visit them.”
I felt Jima sink a bit deeper. My lap was becoming more wet- tears, sweat and spit. I thought about this gem I found an about how the world had thrown him out before he had had a chance to find light and really shine. He was left to be forgotten and I thought about how easily that could have been me or my nephews who stayed in this nightmare. The ceiling was built low above us off of expectations not had and we all sand blue notes to one another through the thin Corda walls. This place ain’t one where Black boys can spread they-selves. Act like this. walk like this. fuck harder. cry over there. . .
I wanted to tell him about my leaving and how that felt. That freedom was somewhere. I found my place, a man to love on real hard and a life to fight for, but I couldn’t find a way to place that words that didn’t sound too cruel or insulting. He needed comfort, not mockery.
He shook awake and it was then that I realized how deeply I feel into my own thoughts. He coughed for minutes in place of answering so I continued. “Im sorry that this has not been fair for you. I wish it had.” Now my face was wet. “I want to help.”
“Its alright pa, im guessing that the time I have left to kick it isn’t much. Them folk over at the clinic wanted me to start popping these pills and have all this shit done. That’s too many needles and too much stress for me. I figure, now is a good time to be out. Not many people will miss me, maybe just you.”
I sank into myself. I’d never heard someone come to this much ease with their undoing. It felt odd and mostly sad.
“I’m not going to let you just fade away.” He laughed again which brought on more coughing. His body was becoming heavier- he was going.
“I’m serious, you’re important.”
“To who?” a small mumble.
“To me.” And I heard a small moan. Like a part of him was touched- that small part that was still fighting for consciousness and he shifted his head towards me so that we could slightly see one another. When he coughed this time there was a little blood on my coat. A couple of men near us bawled up their faces and remarked something heavy to one another. They knew he was a trick. And were probably disgusted by both my kindness and his illness
“Maybe you can make me important to her again.” He sighed turning his gaze to the tenth floor. There was a small figure in the window- as small as the space in her heart musta been.
Ujima shook violently and barked more blood- almost purposefully. He was trying to speak. His mother looked on. I laid him gently on the bench and stood to see her more clearly. I searched for what felt like forever- I searched her face for any emotion- coming to find what I hoped to be remorse.
“COME DOWN HERE! BE WITH YOUR SON! HE’S DYING!” I screamed. I could hear the coughing escalate behind me and all that was in me said go back to the boy. “COME ON!” I repeated. The figure n the window disappeared behind blinds and curtains. And I was still- part of me wishing she was tripping over herself to get down those ten damn flights. The darker part of me knew that this wasn’t true- that she like our other on lookers had forever turned her head. Some others observed- most too paralyzed to act or too stuck under the weight of what this moment meant.
I went back to Ujima and held him, let him rest in my lap. Not much else was said, save a few sweet words.
“Maybe faggots is sad creatures. We get born this way and is forced to make something good with it- or try. And that don’t happen for everybody. I spent a lot of time trying to cry all of it out- force it away so I could be a different kind. And I spent a lot of time trying to find somebody who was gonna love and help me become worthy of things. But that ain’t nothing.” He smiled a shaky smile and then. “nothing at all. I ain’t learn much or do much cause I was stuck.”
I cried again, desperately trying to wipe the water from my tears off of his face.
“We ain’t sad, Ujima. We might be stuck but we ain’t got to be sad.” Those were the only words formed with enough honesty that could escape me. He smiled . . . barely, but still . . .
it was beautiful.
I held him until they took what was left out of my hands- throwing it into one of those bags and I thought on how that shroud wasn’t anywhere as magnificent as he. I thought on the shell I found on that bench- used, cried through, beaten, fragile, honest, joyful, and beautiful. I thought on it becoming apart of the earth and fading away into that embrace years after years from now- like we all will, returning to the place we got such wrappings from and I went to a bar. I called my man and cried to him. He came and we had a drink and a dance for Ujima and it was some sad kind of beautiful.