by Janielle Browne
First place winner in 2021 H. Nigel Thomas / UWI Open Campus Fiction Competition
By the time my brother was fourteen, he had had his first woman. It was easy to tell; something was just different about him. Perhaps it was in the way that a bit of his teenage awkwardness was replaced with a mannish confidence. Maybe it was the way he now swaggered instead of dragged his feet or suddenly had the boldness to maintain eye contact during conversation. Whatever it was, my mother knew immediately and asked, “You use protection?”
He sheepishly shrugged and I waited for her to attack him and force feed him handfuls of his tightly patted afro.
Instead she just sighed and told him to come. The instruction was not specified as exclusively for him, so I tagged along, curious to learn what happened next. My curiosity soon blossomed into full-blown wonder as they stood in the center of my mother’s bedroom, me in the doorway, and she took a box of condoms from her top drawer. My mouth could have fallen to my feet as I watched my mother grab a banana from her fruit display on the mahogany chest of drawers and patiently explain to my brother how to put on a condom.
Then she demonstrated before handing the now offensive banana and a fresh condom over to him to try.
I didn’t know which was more disturbing–that this was my brother whose backside I had been washing when he was a baby, or the fact that my mother owned condoms. I shuddered to think of whether the box was dusty or not. Who could she have possibly been with? I know how we came about, but that didn’t change the fact that you just kind of go through life subconsciously classifying your mother as a virgin.
“Cho. Don’t worry Davonte you would get better at it.” Her voice brought me out of my disturbing thoughts.
They both jumped and turned, looking at me like I had grown an extra limb. They stared in silence before Davonte started laughing until he cried.
“Wey- wey you wan’ try for? Is who and you-” his own laughter cut him off and I could feel my face getting hot.
“Why you nah shut up! You need something smaller to practice wid. Look the pin cushion right dey,” I retorted angrily.
Before he could respond, my mother stepped in shaking her head. “You must be mad,” she muttered, brushing past me.
I froze. I was five years older than my brother and yet I was the one being treated like a child. Davonte was already pulling at the waistband of his joggers and sending the poor banana in it. Me, I stayed rooted in the doorway from sheer embarrassment.
I am thinking of this while I am once again frozen in place. This time, however, it is because the police instructed me to stay right there. My bladder begins staging a small protest, but after seeing a gun on the hip of the man at the entrance, I manage to comply.
Looking around the vast building with elegant flyers and signs, I am beginning to question my belonging as always. This is not like the little competitions I used to enter when I was a teenager. This is big. It means something.
I am reminded of just how much it means, when a man with an earpiece and microphone approaches me. In his black turtleneck, matching slacks and loafers, he looks like what I envision a high school drama teacher to be; or maybe someone’s underpaid assistant.
“Miss McDowald?” his voice is a lot less dramatic than I expected.
“Yes, that’s me,” I confirm, nodding perhaps a bit too vigorously, earning me a raised dark eyebrow and perfectly pursed lips.
I realize my mistake. Of course he knows who I am. My dark, slender face is all over the fancy flyers. For once, people are here to see me and not the other way around. I want to disappear, so I wait for him to say something before I embarrass myself further.
“Right. They’re ready for you. Just follow Miss Jackman through those doors; she’ll show you to your seat and give you a program. Is there anyone accompanying you?”
The question unexpectedly makes me confused and then bitter. That’s the whole reason I am outside. I glance at the non-dramatic-drama-man, then at Miss Jackman whose five-foot frame seemed to materialize out of thin air. “Give me a moment please.”
I begin texting Davonte again begging him to come. He responds to my slew of frantic texts with, ‘Call mommy’, and I suck my teeth in frustration.
I love my little brother, but sometimes he pisses me off. He knows how important this event is to me, and yet he is insisting that he cannot come because he is painting. I think of chastising him, but I know I would be alone.
At seventeen, my brother decided that the St. Vincent Community College was not for him and dropped out to pursue art full-time on his own terms. I did not understand Davonte’s decision, but I respected the rebellion behind it. I had gotten seven grade twos and one grade one and when I showed my mother my slip, she had asked if I was a toilet, where I going with all those twos.
We were in the Terios when he broke the news to us. I wondered if I’d heard right. I was riding shotgun and began looking for the nearest bank over which my mother would probably drive us all, out of sheer rage.
“Who is going to pay for this?” She asked, gripping the steering wheel.
Davonte held onto my seat and eased his lanky frame forward, so that his face was between us ladies. “I saved up some money from when I worked gas station summer and Christmas. I already start buying supplies and I can use the small room in the back as my art studio.”
I tried not to snort at the audacity of Davonte McDowald. Not only did he feel a temporary job made him a man at seventeen, he had also unceremoniously christened the small room in the back of our humble abode as his art studio. When I asked for that room to be my writing studio, I was turned down. My mother used it as her sewing room, and she kept all the boxes of our baby pictures and family albums in there. Davonte would be lucky to get a space. Bless his heart.
“Well is up to you. You is man now.”
Had I been teleported to an alternate dimension where my schoolteacher mother allowed her teenage son to not only drop out of college, but also take over her precious backroom? Davonte leaned back into his seat and she kept driving as if it was the most normal conversation ever.
I must have made some sort of ungodly noise because my mother was glancing at me now.
“When I asked for the back room,” my voice came out so scratchy and low, I wished for some brake fluid to help me, “you said no.”
“You wanted the room to write. You could do that in any room Idalya. You think I want Davonte dropping up paint all over my good carpet?”
A block formed in my throat then, so big it sat on my chest. That block became the latest addition to the great wall that sat between me and my mother. That block impeded on every opportunity that involved informing or including my mother in anything that happened to me. I do not know what it was a block of, but I do know it never crumbled.
I am following Miss Jackman, whose backside accounts for half of her frame. She takes me right up on stage and my long legs almost entangle themselves as my 6-inch heels try to bite the hem of my pants suit. I had convinced myself that a cream pinstripe pants suit was feminine, yet powerful and would go nicely with my larger than life black curls.
However, here on the stage I feel like too much of a spectacle and simply want to disappear.
The seat I’m in looks a lot like a throne and the lights are blinding, which is great because I don’t want to see the audience. My practiced smile makes its way onto my face as the man sitting across from me begins describing me and my body of work to the audience. I feel like I am listening to him talk about someone else. He begins describing my childhood, telling lots of funny stories about Davonte that I mentioned in my book, Davonte’s Inferno which explores the often hellish journey that is siblinghood and the bonds formed throughout. The audience is laughing and having a good time listening to my brother’s antics. I nod internally. I figured they would enjoy that.
“Your work generally seems to center around you and your brother. Although you’re five years apart, the two of you seem very close.” The host smiles encouragingly at me.
“Yes, Davonte is my brother, but he’s also my best friend and sometimes feels a lot like my son.” The audience laughed. “I’ve always been the responsible one, but in many ways, he’s taught me how to live and achieve a level of carefreeness I never thought I could.”
They display a recent photo of my brother and me. He’s twenty-two, but still manages to maintain his boyish charm. It must be those dimples. I hear ladies swooning and cheering in the audience and I shake my head in amusement.
“Well who wouldn’t love a guy like that!” The host wiggles his eyebrows, earning laughs. “But strangely enough, your most popular work is from the poetry collection about your mother. It’s rumoured that you weren’t going to publish it at all, that your brother sent it to publishers without your knowledge. Tell us about that.”
I am enveloped by their expectant silence. I expected him to ask about my latest book and how my relationship with Davonte inspired it. I didn’t do interviews specifically to avoid talking about this collection and talking about her. Yet my most successful piece of work was centered around her. My work and my mother. I couldn’t separate the two, regardless of their desire to stay separate.
“Idalya, your lecturer from college just called telling me that I should be so proud.
How I going be proud if you never tell me you win a writing competition they had? Now she is telling me that the school is having an award ceremony and want you to read your work?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. My mother had never referred to my writing as “work”.
She always said, “Your thing dem”.
“I could ask for the morning off so I could come hear you read it. Is a poem or a story?” She looked at me with a small smile. She had always been shorter than me, but now it was even more obvious with her looking up into my face. I noticed for the first time, creases in her forehead and the grey curls escaping from her nightcap. She must have been so beautiful when she was my age.
I stared at her in silence. I wished I could say something. I really wanted to, but instead I just stared. I watched her smile falter then fade so quickly; I swore I had imagined it. She never said a word about the ceremony or my writing after that. She pretended it never happened and that set the tone for the rest of my career as a writer.
I was nineteen then, and that year I threw myself into writing, trying to exorcise myself of my mother. She was on every page, hiding between every line and I hated her for it, but I hated myself more. I produced more poems in the next three years than I knew what to do with. The ones I liked, I put in a binder to build my portfolio. The ones about my mother, I put in a box to burn.
I never did remember that box, and when I permanently returned from university with my doctorate, I finally developed the courage to get my own place at twenty-six. It was when Davonte was going through my old things in an effort to help me move in, that he came across my box of poems. He collected my poems, used a picture of a portrait he’d done of our mother for the cover and sent my collection off to a publisher under the name Mother by Idalya McDowald. It wasn’t until I received a call from an interested publisher that I was forced to take ownership of my work. I was only angry at Davonte for a second because the collection turned out to be wildly successful and my agent insisted that I put out something else while I was still a hot topic. I published my other poems in various magazines and as I built my reputation, I tried to shove the memory of “Mother” into the recesses of everyone’s minds and overshadow it with my other work. However, Mother could not be eclipsed– not when she was the entire universe.
Somehow, they have convinced me to read a poem for them from Mother. I select the one that I wrote after the award ceremony.
“This poem is called, ‘Letters to home’. I hope you enjoy.” I take a deep breath and try to focus on the blinding lights before I begin.
I’m writing to let you know that I’m 4 years clean from
a five-year long addiction To starving myself.
It wasn’t so much about the weight As it was about control-
The satisfaction of feeling the pain of hunger.
Because you can control pain If it’s self-inflicted right?
That’s 4 years of hearing How much weight I’ve put on Without being asked
How all this time I’ve kept it off. That’s 4 years of controlling
My need to control
Instead of my calorie intake. I’m proud of myself.
It’s also been 2 years
since my last serious urge to kill myself. Sure, a lot of the times
I have to convince myself
That another breath is worth taking But at least I’m not the one
trying to unplug my oxygen.
I am exhausted.
I’m tired of fighting demons only I can see Yet having them be
The only notable thing about me I just want for once
to be seen clearly.
But the only time
You see me in a different light Is when I’m too far away
For you to see
the darkness consuming me. You only see me differently When I’m across the sea
So I’m a little bit blurry
And my tears make me look bright-eyed And an opened mouth sob
Looks an awful lot like a smile…
Isn’t that how nearsightedness works?
I’m writing this letter That you’ll never read
Because these letters on this page only make sense
When not directly addressed to you. So that’s about it,
I’m doing great thanks for asking.”
The entire audience is quiet. I fear that I have been too vulnerable, that I’ve turned them off.
The silence reminds me of when I was eight and told my mother that I didn’t like when the boy next door came over to watch me and Davonte; that he would ask me to do things that made me not want to say my prayers before bed. She stayed frozen listening as I explained that sometimes my throat hurt after and he would give me orange juice before making me watch movies so I would ‘do better next time’.
My mother sent me to bed then and that was the last talk there was of the neighbour boy. It was the last talk of many things for us. It was then I learned to freeze – to play dead in situations I wanted to escape. It was also then as I brushed my teeth and drank water that I felt like I was swallowing cement. That was the beginning of the concrete flower blossoming within my throat; the one whose thorns ripped my words apart before they could escape the tunnel into the light outside my lips.
The sudden roar of applause tears me out of my childhood bathroom and forces me back into the packed auditorium. I am overwhelmed that they love it, that they love me. Most of all I am grateful.
After my interview I am high on applause with expensive wine and a gift basket strapped in the backseat of my little Swift. My right hand is cramping from handshakes and signing books, but adrenaline keeps it steady on the wheel. I am on my way to Davonte to gloat, celebrate and give him a piece of my mind.
When I pull up to my old house I hesitate at the backroom door before trying the knob. Unsurprisingly, it’s unlocked as I’m sure the front door is as well. Somebody can steal the entire house and Davonte will only notice if they take his easel from in front him.
“Wasteman! You here?” I call with a grin shutting the door after me.
“You should’ve come. It was a good time and I have some-” the words die on my lips when I take in the scene before me.
Davonte is there filthy with paint, his afro out of place for once. He has paint in the beard he has been so carefully growing and he is breathing as if he just ran a marathon.
However, for once he is not the star or the centre of attention. Standing between us is my mother. She is holding a painting of me wearing what I am wearing right now but painted me is on the auditorium stage laughing with the host. Davonte has captured the light bouncing off my curls, my head thrown back and a look of pure rapture I’ve never even seen on myself.
“I- I don’t understand-” I am a stammering mess and my mother looks uncertain while Davonte grins.
“Is you Dalya, mommy ask me if I could do it while you were on. So, we watch the programme and if you see me booooyy. Paint flying, mommy shouting and you doing your thing.” Davonte’s animation breaks the ice and prompts me to take a few steps forward.
She heard my poem. She asked him to capture my moment. She listened to my words.
My mother holds the painting up for me to see but I am looking past it at her. It is as if I’m seeing her for the first time, how desperate she looks for me to approve. Davonte carefully moves the painting from between us but neither of us seem to notice.
“I’m proud of you,” she whispers.
For the first time in my life, I feel like a petal of the concrete rose in my throat withers just enough for me to respond, “Thank you.”
About Janielle Browne
Vincentian writer and poet, Janielle Browne is a 24-year-old who is passionate about her faith and the creative arts. She enjoys dancing, singing, theatre, painting, spoken word and literature as well as being involved in community work. After being awarded the UWI Open Scholarship, she completed a BA in Literatures in English with History at UWI Cave Hill Barbados Campus. She then went on to complete a Diploma in Education with the University of the West Indies.
Janielle started writing poetry at the age of 11 at which time she finished her first unpublished poetry collection. She has been published in the Antiguan magazine, IntersectAnu and has also edited academic and fictional works for regional as well as local clients. Known as the Weaver of Words, Janielle has been a finalist in multiple writing prizes such as the Nigel H. Thomas Fiction Prize, 2021 BCLF Elizabeth Nunez Prize for Writers in the Caribbean as well as for the Rhodes scholarship.
However, in 2019 she was named the winner in the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Independence Poetry Competition Open Category. Now a teacher at the Bishop’s College Kingstown Secondary School for over 2 years, she is dedicated to highlighting pertinent and unspoken issues in her work such as injustice, gender, and racial issues as well as abuse.