Now I know what invisible feels like. Yolanda’s been in Lexington Hospital for more than two weeks, and I’ve been walking big as life through its huge, squeaky glass doors, marching along the main hall past the gift shop to the elevator that takes me—no questions asked—to the third floor. No one wants to know where I’m going, who I am.
At least two of the orderlies can see me just fine, though, because they smile and give me a nod. The older one is reading the Daily News from two days ago: Saturday, October 26, 1963. I’ve seen it already. There’s a picture of the president and Jackie Kennedy again, welcoming Marshal Tito and Mrs. Tito of Yugoslavia to the White House. The younger orderly, the one with the head that shines like a new black bowling ball, is the one who showed me how to find Yolanda’s room the first day.
Yolanda’s got a broken rib and a dislocated shoulder. Well, not anymore. I mean the shoulder’s been relocated, and the whole business sounds a lot worse than it is. In fact, the doctors may not know it yet, but she’s fine. She’s so fine that she has her escape all planned. It wasn’t my idea. I swear. All I did was tell her yesterday that you can walk around this place and nobody gives you a second look. That’s when she told me to bring her some clothes to wear. I told her I couldn’t do that, that she shouldn’t just leave the hospital without permission and go wandering through the Bronx again. She gave me a look, like I should have figured out already that she’s got her own rules about what she does.
So here I am with stolen clothes in a paper bag—my cousin Bea’s peddle pushers and a pink sweatshirt. Bea is only eleven, but she’s about Yolanda’s size. Yolanda’s small for thirteen, I guess. But really she’s almost fourteen, like me. I hope Yolanda won’t get mad when she sees that the shirt’s pink. She doesn’t seem like the girlie type to me, but that’s the best I could do. Most of my own clothes are still in storage or at my father’s place. My mother and me and my sister, Cait, and my little brother, Owen, are living with my aunt Maggie now. So’s my big brother, Liam, at least when he’s around. We got evicted from our apartment on Mapes Avenue on October 11, more than two weeks ago, and we couldn’t take all our clothes with us. Aunt Maggie’s got five kids of her own. So it’s a sardine can of a life.
Yolanda’s asleep when I get to the room. The white sheet is tucked under her chin, and with her nose in the air and her head so small and dark on the pillowcase, she looks like a chocolate kiss in vanilla ice cream. American Bandstand is on the television, the show Yolanda claims she never watches. She says the kids on the show dance like they learned from mannequins on speed and that Dick Clark, the host, is barely a notch cooler than Lawrence Welk, the band leader on Channel 7 that even my mother calls an old fart. Yolanda likes the Temptations and Chuck Berry. She didn’t think I liked them, but I do. Liam has their records.
I don’t know if it’s okay to wake Yolanda, so I put the bag of clothes on the floor and sit down in the chair near the bed. The room is quiet. I can hear the nurses’ voices from down the hall and a humming noise from somewhere, maybe the room next door where that old woman is, the one with her bed covered in Saran Wrap. Already I’m getting warm, so I take my coat off. Yolanda isn’t snoring, but she’s making funny sounds, a nervous breathing that comes and goes. I wonder if she’s dreaming. She turns on her side and her arm comes out from under the covers. I’m struck by how dark her skin is, and now I can look as long as I like without her seeing. I hardly ever notice anymore what color she is, so I don’t know why it has my attention today. It’s just that there is so much that’s forbidden about Yolanda. Because she’s colored, I’m not supposed to visit her in the hospital, I’m not supposed to want to hang out with her, I’m not supposed to want to be in her house. All the fuss gives her color a life of its own, as if it’s something separate from Yolanda herself.
I stand and move closer to the bed. Up close, I see that her eyes are moving, like when Aunt Maggie’s dog, Little Feather, is sleeping. I wonder what Yolanda’s skin feels like. I turn and look at the doorway to make sure no one’s there. I’m not sure it’s normal to want to, but I do. I touch her skin, her forearm, the place below where her elbow starts. It’s soft. It feels just like mine, just like anybody’s. Yolanda opens her eyes and smiles at me.
“Hey, Fiona,” she says. “Hi.”
I say hi back. I’ve already taken my hand away, and I don’t think she knows what woke her.
“How’s it going?” she says.
I tell her okay, but I hate it at my aunt Maggie’s house. I spend as much time at the hospital as I can. Aunt Maggie’s really nice and all. It’s just that you can’t pack three grown-ups, eight kids, and one in-betweener—that’s Liam—into five rooms and expect the density not to make everybody crazy.
I never thought I’d miss that ugly apartment on Mapes Avenue. I hated it when my mother moved us there. It didn’t feel like home at all. A lot of my stuff was still at the apartment where we lived with my dad. And as if sharing a room with Cait wasn’t bad enough, Mom had to bunk in with us, too. But it was better than what we have now, which is nothing. Yesterday my cousin Maureen took all her cosmetics from her dresser and put them in a box with a lock on it. Like me or Cait would ever be seen dead in her Tangerine Tango lipstick or her Rose Rush rouge that makes her look like she’s just escaped from a doll factory where something went seriously wrong.
“What time is it?” says Yolanda.
“About three thirty.”
“How was school?”
I roll my eyes. I’m in yet another new school ’cause Aunt Maggie lives on Bathgate Avenue, about a mile away from Mapes. I missed school for a whole week after we moved in, but finally my mom registered me at the school near there. I started more than a week ago. And once again I don’t know anyone, except my cousins, whom I don’t want to know. The younger ones are okay, but Maureen and Ed hate me. I can’t really blame them. Who would want their place turned into a homeless shelter? School is even worse. Being an outsider, not belonging, comes down to such ordinary things. Like when I have to tell teachers how to say my name: Fiona O’Doherty. I wouldn’t bother telling them on my own because I don’t care how they pronounce it, except that every teacher in every class asks the same thing: did I pronounce that correctly? And they never do, so I have to say it for them, loud enough for everyone to hear, in a room full of suddenly attentive kids whose names have been familiar to each other since kindergarten.
“Did you bring the clothes?” Yolanda says.
“In the bag,” I tell her.
She wants to see what I brought, so I hand the bag to her. She moans when she sees the color, but she doesn’t fuss. I’m still in the skirt I wore to school, so we won’t exactly match. “They’ll have to do. Give me a second,” she says and scoots off the bed, wincing, and into the bathroom with the bag. I look around, but there’s not much to see. On her night table are some magazines, a book; some playing cards from a deck have fallen on the floor. I pick them up and put them on the night table with the rest. I notice a large greeting card, tucked between the phone and the water pitcher. The envelope is postmarked South Carolina. I slip the card out and look at it. There’s a sunrise on the front, all sentimental. I peek inside and see that it’s from Yolanda’s mother. There’s a long note from her at the end, but the only part I get the chance to read is where she says she’ll be there by the end of the week, because Yolanda comes out of the bathroom and sees me reading it.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I…”
“Just leave it,” she says. She’s all dressed, with her hair in two short thick braids. She’s in a hurry but moving stiffly, and I see that she’s still in some pain. She asks again what time it is, and I tell her it’s a quarter to four. She says we should go.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I ask.
“You look like you’re still hurting.”
“It’s nothing. Anyway, I’m going to hurt just as much if I stay here.”
“But you don’t know how you’re going to feel walking around. At least here you’d be in bed.”
“I don’t want to be in bed,” she says.
“Is it because your mother’s coming?” She gives me a look that tells me I shouldn’t ask her to explain. It’s none of my business, but I hate that she won’t tell me. It makes me feel like I’m not important to her. But I don’t ask her again. “Where are we going?” I say.
“One thing at a time.” She goes to the narrow closet and takes out the only thing hanging there, a huge sweater that looks like it weighs a ton.
Yolanda walks to the door and peeks out. She holds her finger up to tell me to wait. After a moment she looks outside again, satisfied this time that it’s safe to go. We move quickly and in a matter of seconds we’re down the hall and into the stairwell, both of us a little breathless, although we haven’t gone very far. The stairwell smells less like ammonia than the hall does. I take a breath and try to calm down. That’s when Yolanda looks at me and grins. She looks relieved, as if she’s just escaped some awful fate. I think she’s about to say something, but the sound of a door opening onto the landing below keeps her quiet. For a second I don’t know what we should do, but then the footsteps head away from us to a floor below.
We remain still, waiting for it to get quiet again. Finally, we’re sure we’re the only ones on the stairs and I want to say something, ask her why we’re doing this, but the question hangs on me like a weight. I don’t want to pretend anymore. Not with Yolanda. She won’t trust me, won’t tell me what this is about, why she wants to leave the hospital so badly and without her family’s permission. And I don’t want to pretend that the secrets are ok.
Yolanda takes a few steps down the stairs and realizes I haven’t followed. She turns and looks at me. “Come on,” she says, but I don’t answer. She looks at me again, suspicious. “What are you standing there for?”
“I want to know why we’re doing this.”
She turns her back and goes down another few steps, and her words trail carelessly behind her. “It’s no big deal,” she says. “I just don’t need to be here anymore. I’m fine.”
She doesn’t hear me follow, so she turns again. She doesn’t like the way I’m looking at her. “What’s with you?” she says.
“Come on then.”
I shake my head no.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t want to be shut out,” I tell her. “I want to know why you’re doing this.” She sighs, the way my sister Cait does when she thinks I’m taking things too personally. But she doesn’t answer me. “I don’t want to be here if I have to pretend with you, too.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me.”
“So is this about your mother?”
Her body caves in a little, and she slides down the wall and sits on the stairs. “Yes,” she says. “It’s about my mother.” She plays with the huge button on her sweater. She’s coming up from South Carolina today.” I can barely hear her. “And I’m pretty sure when she goes back, she’s planning to take me with her.” I look at Yolanda, hoping she’s kidding around. But she’s serious, a little scared at the edges, and the idea of her being gone tightens up my chest. I can’t breathe right. I bite my lip and clench my fists so I won’t cry or do something stupid.
“Why?” is all I can get out.
“She says things are getting out of hand here.”
“’Cause you got hurt?”
“That didn’t help.”
That part’s my fault. I don’t say it, but Yolanda reads it on my face. Yolanda got hurt because of my brother Liam. The day I ran away, I didn’t know it, but I was carrying something around that Liam had stashed in my pocketbook—drugs that he was supposed to deliver. When he didn’t, his business partners from the North side of Crotona Park came looking for their stuff. “Forget it,” she says. “My mom’s the one who’s out of hand.”
“When did she go down to South Carolina?”
“Back in June. For her health. They said she was going to be ‘needing some rest.’” It’s clear from the way Yolanda says it that she doesn’t believe what they’ve told her. Sounds phony to me too, but I don’t say so.
“So that’s why you moved in with your Aunt Cheryl?”
“How come you didn’t transfer to a school near your aunt’s house?”
“That was the plan. But I wouldn’t go.”
“You wouldn’t transfer?”
“Nope. I told them I was staying in the same school.”
“The same school we went to when you lived near me?”
“But how do you get there every day?”
I shake my head. She’s amazing. I almost say it. She won’t let grownups jerk her around. She makes it sound so simple, but my folks have me so boxed in I can’t say good morning unless I know they’ll agree. My big rebellion was telling my mother I was going to see Yolanda at the hospital. My mother was against it, ’cause Yolanda is colored. But I don’t know if that really counts as a rebellion. I mean I didn’t plan it. I just had to do it. Nothing my mother could have done or said could have made me feel worse than not going to see Yolanda. “I wish I had your courage,” I mumble.
“What do you call running away from your father’s place? Sleeping on a park bench?”
Yolanda’s talking about the day I ran away from home. That’s not exactly true. You can’t run away from home unless you have one. I went back to my father’s apartment, on Bryant Avenue, the place that used to be our home before my mother decided to get us away from my dad to an apartment of our own. She finally got tired of needing sunglasses rain or shine. The apartment she moved us to, the one on Mapes Avenue, was the one we got evicted from, seven months after we moved into it. It was no palace, but it beat living ringside. Anyway when they put our furniture in the street, me and my brother Liam took off for the old homestead, where my father still lives.
“That wasn’t courage. It was just the opposite,” I tell her, stepping away. It’s hard to say the rest. “I was afraid.”
“My father was crazy drunk and wiping the floor with Liam. It looked like I was going to be next.” I can’t look at her while I say this. “I should have tried to help him.” Instead I tried to run as far as I could. I couldn’t stand how it felt to watch Liam get hit. Liam had figured going back to Dad’s was better than standing in the street with the living room furniture and wondering where we were going to sleep that night. He knew Dad wouldn’t be home, and he wasn’t. We spent the day scrounging food from the cabinets and listening to Liam’s records. But Daddy came home mean and drunk and mad at the world. And Liam got the blame. I was so scared I shook all over and no trick I could do inside my head would block out what I was feeling or what he was doing to Liam. I had to get out. So I ran. I just kept going.
“Don’t be stupid,” says Yolanda. “What could you have done? I would have done the same thing.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” And I know that for a fact. Because when Liam’s friends from that gang came to Yolanda’s house looking for their drugs, she stood up to them—and got hurt for it. I didn’t tell her how I felt when the boys went for her instead of me, how relieved I was. The shame of it makes me sick. I can’t stand thinking about any of this. “Why does it have to be South Carolina anyway?” I ask her. “Why did she have to go all the way down there to rest?”
“’Cause that’s where her new man went.”
I don’t say anything. We get up and walk down the stairs as quietly as we can and get down to the first floor landing. I reach for the door handle, but Yolanda puts her hand on mine and stops me from opening it. “I was going to tell you about my mother, Fiona. I planned on telling you all along.” I nod, grateful. The words feel like a sip of something sweet. “Telling is just hard,” Yolanda says.
I understand how hard it is. She knows I do. The morning after I ran away, the morning after I slept on that bench, I wandered around the streets, heading nowhere until I ran into Yolanda, and it was as if she’d been waiting for me—there on her crooked front porch. She took me into her house, asked me if I was okay. I wasn’t. And she wouldn’t let me pretend that I was. So I told her what happened. And once I did, something changed, something about who I was. I was still Fiona, the girl whose living room furniture was sitting out on the street. But now I had someone, someone who knew what happened and wanted to be with me anyway.