I had been driving up to Hidden Wells in Rockville as a way to prove to my wife I could change. But the truth was, I only went there at first to work out. I had gotten out of shape and Hidden Wells was a "treatment" facility for people looking for an alternative method for handling addictions. The people there sought the root causes of addictions through working the mind and body. It wasn't all serenity prayers and confessions.
And I needed to lose a few pounds. Since my pal Junior's breakdown, the guys at Rosedale had stopped playing our weekly pick-up games at the Y. So when Ayo came to me, demanding I change, she'd given me Hidden Wells' brochure. For the past several weeks after school I drove up Connecticut Avenue, got onto the Beltway, and sat in incessant traffic jams. But once I arrived, I felt giddy to be working out again.
My counselor, Bomani, was my workout partner. And he kept asking me questions about my drinking, when it first started, what were my worse experiences, yada, yada, yada.
I would give generic answers. "I dunno" or "I'll have to think about that."
Pretty soon Bomani, who was quite the athlete and reminded me of my younger brother Yusef, started to wonder out loud that maybe this program wasn't working for me.
I assured him it was.
Then this past Wednesday, he asked me the weirdest question. Farouk, he'd said, can you describe for me one of the saddest moments in your life?
I was running on the treadmill and had to lower the levels to catch my breath. I must've had an angry expression because Bomani backed away from me. Give me a minute to think, I said. But I couldn't think of a sad moment in my life. Not then at least.
He said, Well, I'll give you an example from my life.
And he did. He told me way too much about how his dad had left him and his two brothers over at their aunt's one day and never came back. His aunt wasn't nice. She spanked him and his brothers for everything, peeing in the bed, not washing dishes, and especially if they didn't make their bunk beds or if they ate their cousins' candy. It sounded horrible the way he told it.
But I didn't have that kind of life, really. My siblings and I grew up in a poor neighborhood, and that was about it.
Bomani wasn't convinced. Just try, he said, try and think about something. You have a hidden well inside of you. He pressed his pointer finger into my wet chest.
I showered and dressed.
We walked out to my car, but there wasn't anything in my mind. I wanted to get home and have sex with Ayo, if she let me, which of late she hadn't. I didn't tell Bomani that, though occasionally he'd ask about my marriage, about Ayo. I always said, Things were a work in progress.
I don't know if he believed me those times, but he kept his mouth shut, which I was happy about.
* * *
So now I was on my way to Hidden Wells again. Stuck in traffic as usual. There wasn't anything worth listening to on NPR, and I was feeling annoyed with LeVar and Dukes' sports banter. I hadn't had a drink in several days. I wasn't missing it. I didn't drink as much when I worked out to begin with. But after the guys started playing poker as a way to cheer Junior up, drinking seemed appropriate. I never had more than three Jack and Gingers. Usually, the way some of the guys made them, one was enough.
Anyway, I hadn't been playing poker since this Hidden Wells thing started. The guys gave me some shit, but they also knew Ayo wasn't fooling around. Pretty women tend not to play games for very long. Besides, I was the last one still in a relationship. And I wanted to keep that streak going.
I was just about a block or so away from Hidden Wells. The owners had converted a Gold's Gym into this new-age facility. People on Rockville Pike must've thought the place a newer Sports Complex, what with all the treadmills stationed at windows that overlooked the Pike. Either that or they thought it was a Dotcom place. I could see the grayish white building from where I was at the light. Then an answer for Bomani came to me. I had almost forgotten this moment. I didn't know why it left and suddenly came back. But there it was.
Before my father became the local media's go-to guy for all things black, he was simply Mr. Ibrahim Kefter, a US history teacher and track coach at the neighborhood high school. While he taught in a public school, my mom worked on her doctorate in sociology and taught at a private school that separated boys from girls. That's where my siblings and I went. Belmont. It wasn't too far from Hidden Wells, though I believed the school moved in the 90s. My mom was long gone by then. She had started teaching at Howard. Dad had put his doctorate on hold for several years while my sibling and I were toddlers. He later finished and got lucky and started teaching at American. But before all that, my dad wanted to give back to his community. Teaching in public schools seemed right to him, though clearly his lectures went way over their heads.
As I thought about it, most of the black men my parents knew during the 70s and 80s were demanding, possibly even domineering. They insisted on a lot from their women but delivered little for themselves or anyone else. But that wasn't my dad. He truly supported my mom, and she supported him.
It wasn't perfect though. Money was extremely tight back then. And, I guess, this was also when I discovered we were poor. My parents made most of our clothes except our school uniforms and winter coats, which were all hand-me-downs. They would get free fabric from one of my aunts who owned a shop on U Street. They would spend many nights and the entire weekends taking turns to stitch and sew and blend these colorful shirts and pants. Though the materials weren't from Africa, my parents made their versions of clothes African children would love. But we were Americans. And in our neighborhood, poor black children at that time didn't love those kinds of clothes.
My siblings and I had already been branded as "weird" because of our names: Farouk, Jakara, Yusef. To have to wear these bright loud colors only added to our oddity and got us laughed at. Jakara could jump double-dutch well and always played the role of the cute brown-skinned girl with slanted eyes. Since I was tall for my age and had some basketball skills, I got over that way. Though some called me white Africa, I didn't really mind. But my younger brother, Yusef, he took it the hardest. He was the brownest of us three and hated being called an African-booty scratcher. He usually got into fight with bigger kids, which often meant I had to fight their bigger brothers. That sucked. But that wasn't the thing that saddened me.
Growing up in DC, we moved around a lot, especially when I was smaller. We landed mainly in poor neighborhoods where the people respected my parents, our family. Even if they didn't agree with my folks' pro-black lifestyle, they at least knew my parents were harmless, possibly even helpful. If something went wrong at their jobs, or if social workers treated them unfairly, neighbors would come knocking on our door, asking what could be done, how could someone mistreat them this way, or was it possible for one of my parents to speak for them? My folks never said no. Even to the parents of those bullies who terrorized my brother. An awkward feeling arose in my siblings and me. We didn't resent our neighbors. We pitied them the way "well-meaning whites" pitied some blacks. In a way, my folks had become to us those good missionaries trying to civilize the poor black savages. And when Jakara, Yusef, and I whispered about it, cramped up in our shared bedroom, we slowly began to understand why some of the kids treated us badly. Their moms or their grandmothers relied on my parents for answers they couldn't provide for themselves. And when the kids saw us, we were a constant reminder of what they didn't have, of what their parents could never give them, and of what in spite of our clothes and names made us appear to be more than they thought of themselves to be. Our pride made them leery of us because whatever history they did know it told them that pride was a dangerous thing for black people to have.
The thing I now remembered had occurred on one late-fall afternoon. I went to my dad's classroom. The high school where he taught was in the last neighborhood we moved into before my siblings and I went off to college. It was one of those communities that had its small share of middle-income people, even a few whites and Latinos. I liked living there because being different didn't matter. Most of my friends' parents were progressive, even back then. At least two couples practiced Buddhism, and several were devout Atheists. But the school: it had students who were bussed from low-income housing. Whenever I went there after school, they seemed perplexed and unprepared. They were not like the kids in the community, nor were they like the students in Rockville. Traveling there on the bus was like going from light to dark. Even if the sun was out, the school where my dad taught seemed dim.
So it was toward the end of the day, his last class. The halls were rowdy with students. A few of them lived on my block and slapped five with me when they came in my dad's classroom. My dad smiled and whispered: Someday you'll be standing here, taking over for me.
I snickered at the thought. I didn't think at the time I could be as dynamic as my dad. He made history and African Americans' presence in it enjoyable, not boring as my students say my lessons are today. I also knew I couldn't tolerate the shit he tolerated. Some of the boys were especially dickish and talked while he taught that day. He stopped periodically to stare at them. They settled down but would pass notes and hunch over and hold their laughing faces. I tried not to get angry at their disrespect. I shook it off and started my algebra homework. One of my dad's students loaned me her calculator. She was cute, too, and dark, and had a smile that made me smile.
My dad had been talking about Angola and its fight for independence. He made some remark about Western Imperialism that caught my attention. But for some reason, one of the boys in his class wasn't buying it.
He said: Man, that's some bullshit.
The class erupted into "awws" and laughter, but my dad didn't stir.
My dad said: Why do you say that?
The boy answered: Look, history and that you sayin is about dead people or people who nobody knows or care about, you dig? I wanna learn about making money, man. That's what's happened today, man.
The boy held out his hand and another boy slapped it in agreement.
My dad did his usual head shake and sigh thing. How do you expect to make money if you don't know who you are? he asked. Or better, who you are dealing with?
I know I'm broke, the boy said, and that's all I need to know.
A lot of his classmates co-signed and laughed. I looked at my dad who still shook his head.
The boy then added: Besides, Mr. Kefter, you don't want your kids to be bamas for life, do you?
My dad stopped shaking his head. In DC, anything uncool was labeled, bama. I was pretty certain, even with the respect yielded to my parents, they had at one time or another been called bamas. We had, so it only made sense to me then that they had, too. My dad leaned forward on his desk. He nodded and shifted his jaw. My dad was a slender man, but he wasn't skinny. He was quite strong. Even through that homemade African shirt, I could see his muscles tightening as his eyes narrowed on the boy. The class suddenly became silent. The boy cleared his throat and straightened up in his chair.
It was library-quiet in that hot room. My dad didn't move or speak. He only stared. It was the first time I actually saw anger in him. Even his stringy beard that framed his olive cheeks looked blacker, meaner. I didn't know what he was thinking, but for several seconds I thought he would go over and hit that kid.
But something in me spoke. And before I knew what it was, I had said to the boy: You're stupid.
There wasn't any laughter in the boy's face. He seemed as surprised as I was. The girl who loaned me her calculator recoiled. I felt a surge of pride. I puffed out my chest. When I looked over at my dad, he stomped over to me and slapped my face. The bell rang.
Everyone hurried out silently.
* * *
"Wow," Bomani said, after I told him the story. He shook his head, then rubbed the back of it. He put his lips together, licked them, bit the corners. "First, thanks for sharing," he said, adding, "Maybe that's what made you start down this path."
I shrugged and told him I wasn't sure.
We were about to do squats and then we were to go to the pull-up machine. He spotted me as I dropped down holding 245 on my shoulders. I was on my last set of 10. Bomani counted out softly. When I racked the weights, I explained how awful my dad felt, how he had never lost his cool like that before or since, how it all sort of came back to me while I was at that light.
Bomani did his last set of 10, holding 350 on his shoulders. I didn't bother counting or spotting him. He went down and popped back up like a professional. I started wondering if all this work was another kind of addiction for him.
"Why do you think it came to you?" he asked, looking at me in the mirror.
"I guess I blocked it out," I said, which sounded true, but honestly, I wasn't sure.
"And he never hit you again?"
"Well, he did when I did things wrong. But he always would talk to us. I think we preferred a spanking over a lecture."
"When was your last… spanking?"
That was just it, I said, I couldn't remember many more after that. My dad would grab my shirt and start fussing, but that wasn't exactly spanking. Yusef probably got more spankings, but even that was a guess. My mom disciplined Jakara, but from what I gathered, she, too, was more of a lecturer. Other than that moment, my parents were pretty much hands off.
"And is that why you feel your parents were like missionaries?" Bomani asked.
"No," I said. "I guess the missionary thing was our way, me and sibs' way, of dealing with the neighborhood ignorance."
"But why missionaries?"
I only had a funny thought. "Well," I said, "they came to Africa with Bibles and left with our resources."
Bomani had an A-ha expression on. "So," he said, "you see yourself as having lost something? To religion or authority?"
"No," I said. "That's not what I meant."
"Are you sure?"
He was looking at me as if my reflection told a different tale.
"I'm sure," I said. "I think missionaries do wonderful things to help people less fortunate."
Bomani nodded his head. "I see."
We walked over to the pull-up machine. He started doing his set of 10 pull-ups. When he was done, he clapped his hands loudly. "Whoa!" he yelled. "So how many you think you're going to do?"
"I dunno," I said. His enthusiasm startled me. "Maybe five."
"Go for six," he said, "go for it!"
I went for seven.
When I was done, Bomani held his hands up as if I had hit a walk-off homerun.
"That's what I'm talking about, Farouk. Going for an extra. Whoa! That's it, bro!"
I had to admit I felt proud of my seven pull-ups. The weight on the machine helped balance out my lack of strength, but still. Bomani made me feel excited about this minor thing. We did two more sets. I maintained my seven. Bomani kept cheering me on.
Next and last was the treadmill.
As we walked up the ramp leading to the assorted stair-climbers and elliptical machines, Bomani turned and asked: "Have you talked with your dad about that incident? How it made you feel?"
"He knew," I said. "I cried the whole way home."
"No, Farouk. I mean, how you feel today? On the inside."
This was his new thing for me now. Bomani wanted me to have a conversation with my dad. He wanted me to express my internal turmoil.
I wasn't sure if I had any. Besides, I explained, my dad was in his 70s. This kind of tear-jerking thing wasn't his bag. He wasn't insensitive, far from it. My dad just wasn't the kind of guy to go back over his past misdeeds. He didn't have many, so why would he need focus on the few.
"There's a hidden well in all of us, Farouk." Bomani said. I stood at/on a treadmill and he set it for intervals. "I'll be back in a little while."
"You're not going to run with me?"
He smiled and tilted his head. "I want to leave with your thoughts," he said with an Aw-shucks grin. "I will return."
Then he was gone.
And I was in this room alone, on a treadmill set too damn high. I didn't mind the intervals setting. It mixed in running and hill-climbing and brisk walking. But the running part would always increase. My chest would burn, but I never stopped. Sweat would be pouring of me. And by the time I was done, my head would be spinning. All through the run I would think: Get me off of this thing. Yet, for some reason, I didn't want to let Bomani down. I continued. Hard-breathing, sweaty, but still going.
He really was a good cheerleader.
After my workout and shower, I didn't see Bomani. I decided not to go looking for him. I was tired. On my way home, I called his office and left him a message, explaining how I would talk with my dad. I figured that would suffice as my "good evening" and "thanks for a workout."
Ayo was going over the kids' lessons when I came in. Having kids run up to you with all their happiness can humble a guy. I loved my kids and Ayo. She smiled and commandeered them back to the table.
"I made seafood salad," Ayo said. "It's in the fridge."
"Thanks, pretty girl." I kissed the side of her head. "Your hair smells good, darling."
"Darling," my son, Olu, repeated. "Darling, darling, darling."
"See what you started?" Ayo said.
My other son, Ali, said, "‘Thanks, pretty girl,'" and giggled with Olu.
Little Ayo just laughed and called me "eyeballs."
"I'll leave you four to your work." I went down in our basement. I had exams to grade and wanted to prepare for next week. Sitting in my office, however, made me think of drinking. And thinking of drinking made me think I did have a problem. And thinking that I had a problem made me wonder if my dad's smacking me caused my disease? I tried to throw myself into grading those exams, but I couldn't focus. I walked around the basement. I turned on ESPN. I turned off ESPN. I scanned the bookshelves, then the CD, shelves then the DVD shelves. My eyes kept creeping over to the bar and the bottle of Jack. I went to the bathroom. I couldn't shit or piss. I stared at my reflection. Maybe I should shave, I thought. I had grown this beard for so many years; maybe it was time for a change. I looked just like my mom, only with a long stringy beard. I had her eyes and narrow nose. But my hair was like Dad's, thin and flimsy. Girls used to think I was cute, had good hair, but I never could style it the way all the cool boys did. Every fade I got gave off a skinhead look. Sometimes, I wished I were darker, like my mom and Yusef. Or maybe as brown as Jakara. I washed my face when I heard Ayo call me.
"Just a minute," I said. I dried my beard, lips, and nose. I allowed the rest of the water to roll down my forehead and cheeks. Then I dried my face over again.
"Is everything okay?"
I opened the door and saw Ayo holding a bowl of seafood salad. "Yeah," I said, trying to smile, "just had a long session with Bomani. Guess I'm kind of tired."
She handed me the bowl. "Well, me and the kids are heading upstairs if you need the kitchen table."
There was sadness in Ayo's brown eyes.
"I'm okay," I assured her.
"I don't like when you're down here alone," she said. "I'm giving you as much space and opportunity to prove me wrong, Farouk. But I can't take any more of your drinking."
"Is it the drinking or the drunkenness?" I don't know why I asked that. I figured there was a huge difference between drinking and being drunk. And for a moment, the question caused Ayo to reflect on the difference.
* * *
Ayo and I had met at party. Junior had been bragging about Lorraine's good friend. He had told me she was time enough for me; so when Lorraine and he threw this Oldies themed party, Ayo was there in hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans. She stood like Moses on Mount Sinai, but instead of Commandments, she held the room. Ayo was "Good God" and "Oh Lord" all in one. Some of the other male teachers from Rosedale were there; some of Junior's frat brothers were there with their wives. Even the pretty female teachers came, but none of them could hold a candle to Ayo. She had the most unusual brown skin, a mix of dark chocolate and honey. Her hair was closely cut as if she were a cancer patient. And her arms and legs were strong like an Alvin Ailey-dancer's. Junior put on "True Fine Mama" and Ayo and I hand-danced all over his and Lorraine's basement. In some DC circles, you're not anything if you can't play bid whist or hand dance. The night we met I could do both.
After that, the dancing, the partying, and the drinking were nonstop. Every weekend was a blast. But when we married and started having kids, I guess the party was sort of over for Ayo. She nursed our kids and stayed home and read to them. I on the other hand still hung out with the guys. She didn't seem to mind at first. After all, we were the goodtime couple of our friends. And occasionally, we got a sitter and she and I rekindled all the fun and fire of our youth. Soon, though, Ayo would poop out. Midway through a dance, she would need water and rest. We started watching people dance and have fun more than we participated in it. I wasn't mad. I still went out and played ball with the guys. A drink here, a drink there, and I was good. I would come home, loud, probably a little obnoxious, but still loving. And I guess Ayo started becoming annoyed. She couldn't hang out with me and I think that bothered her. I know our date-nights were far and few and in between. If her parents or my parents weren't up to watch their grandkids, then she was in the house. When I thought back about it, I was kind of a bastard for not being there enough for her.
"I don't know if I'm tired of your drinking or drunkenness," Ayo said. "I just want you to be better than you've been."
"Okay," I said, forking some of the salad. "I understand. Bomani thinks it has to do with my dad."
Ayo shook her head. "I can't see it. Why does he think that?"
Chewing, I said: "My dad smacked me once."
"Did he?" Ayo laughed softly. "I bet you had it coming?"
"I dunno." I swallowed the peppery salad. "You got jalapeños in this?"
"Oh, yeah, be careful."
Normally, if I ate something with jalapeños, I'd cool the burn down with a beer. My eyes went straight to the kegerator, then back to her.
"You want some water?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
By the time Ayo came back with the water, I had finished the salad and had snuck a sip of beer. I thanked her for the water and took large gulps, knowing I'd have to pee. I wanted to wash away any smell of beer-breath from my mouth. For extra measure, I told her a quick version of what happened when I was younger. She listened but seemed to be paying more attention to the kids playing above our heads.
"Maybe he's right," she said finally. "It wouldn't hurt talking with Baba Ibrahim." Ayo kissed my forehead. "I still love you, Farouk."
"I still love you, too."
She walked over to the stairs, then looked back. "Next time, sweetie," she said, frowning, "put the beer mug back on the rack." She went up without looking at me in the mirror.
I felt like shit.
* * *
Saturday and Sunday were usually our family days. Ayo and I would load up the truck and head over to either her parents' or my parents' house. But on this Sunday, I headed to my parents' house in Brandywine alone. I drove my car and thought of the many possible ways to bring up the incident. Ayo thought I should just come out with it, explain that we were having marital issues and that my counselor believed my drinking stemmed from some sad moment in my life. It sounded good when she said it. But the drive from Kearney Street in DC to Green Oak Estates in Md. made me change my mind. I couldn't just come out with, "Hey dad, Ayo and I are having issues stemming from when you slapped the shit out of me." He wouldn't buy that. He'd ask a shitload of questions; he'd ask me about my own personal choices, my conscious acceptance of drinks, and my refusal to stop; he'd know that slapping me so many years ago, though wrong, wasn't the reason I drank. And I guess, in a way, I knew this, too. For some reason, I had gotten in my head this notion of doing something about my drinking problem even though I didn't think I had one. I had made some mistakes when I got too far-gone, but those were outliers. I was a steady drinker. And so was Ayo. She liked her vodka and cranberry occasionally. And when we went out, just the two of us, she could really toss them back. Again, those were outliers.
I shook my head at the double standard and parked in my parents' driveway. My mom came to the door with some coarse fabric in her hands. She kissed my cheek and sat back in her chair near the sewing machine.
"Isn't it our weekend?" she asked. "Where are the kids?"
"Oh, yeah. It is," I said, "but I have to talk to dad about something."
"Oh." My mom started then stopped the sewing machine. She looked me up and down. "What's wrong?"
"Well, I'd rather talk to dad since it involves him. Kind of."
"Farouk?" My mom lowered her head and looked over her glasses. I felt like I was a student in her class who did not answer a question correctly. "Whatever involves your father involves me, too."
"Well, he's sleeping upstairs."
Though my folks had retired to this suburban development, they were far from being ineffectual. My mom's iron levels and eyes were bad, and my dad's diabetes and his knees weren't good, but they still maintained their small clothing business, though it wasn't as thriving as it once was. Their main income came from their pensions as professors. It paid the mortgage on their home and allowed for simple accoutrements: a flat-screen television, a satellite radio, two cellphones and a desktop computer. And they still submitted an occasional article or opinion piece to The Afro American newspaper. I smiled at my mom as she worked the machine, sticking her tongue out to the side of her mouth.
I went up to see my dad.
He was coming out of the bathroom, his cane thumping the floor.
"Well, isn't this a surprise? I didn't hear the kids."
"No, they're not here."
"Oh." He looked at the large wall clock. "It's not our weekend?"
"It is, but, I wanted to talk to you about something."
"About what?" My dad sat in a chair under the clock. He reached in the wooden nightstand to his right and pulled out a long white, rectangular tube of pills. My parents didn't believe in traditional medicine, well, maybe they did, but modern pills weren't taken. Instead, they preferred vitamins, herbal supplements, and unproven concoctions they insisted were better for them. There was a half-emptied glass of water under the dimly lit lamp. The curtains were apart, so I wasn't sure why he even needed the lamp. It was pretty bright in there.
"Dad," I said, looking for a place to sit. I pulled my mom's chair around their bed. "You remember—"
My dad held up his hand. "Queenie, you take your vitamins?" he yelled to my mom.
"Taking them now, honey," she called back.
"You were saying?"
"You remember when you, um, when you—"
"When I what?"
"When you, uh, when you, um, slapped me?"
My dad tilted his head.
"Do you remember when you slapped me?" I asked again, more assertive.
My dad frowned at me. He rubbed his chin, then under his bottom lip. He squinted as if searching for the meaning of this question, its answer. His mouth parted, but he only sighed. He reached for the glass and finished the water. He cleared his throat. He shook his head.
"Farouk," he said. "I don't remember that."
There was something lost in my dad's eyes. His beard was much grayer than I remembered. It was still long as mine, but he looked tired, like an Imam after a final prayer service. He searched my face, I assumed, trying to recognize or remember a moment of hitting me.
"I had come to your history class," I said. "You were discussing the liberation of Angola. Remember?"
He nodded. "I remember lecturing on Angola, but I don't remember you being there. And I really don't remember slapping you, Farouk."
"You don't remember me calling one of your students stupid?"
"You did that?"
My dad shifted his jaw from side to side. "I just can't see it."
This was pointless. I rubbed my eyes with my hand.
"Well, if I did, I hope you forgave me by now." My dad chuckled.
I looked over at him. He was in the pajamas Ayo and I purchased for his birthday. The shirt hung loosely over his slender frame. "Of course, I forgave you dad," I said. "This was just an exercise in silliness."
My dad laughed but it seemed he was thinking of some other thing. My mom stood in the doorway. She held two full glasses of water. She handed one to me, and then the other to my dad. He gave her the empty glass, but he still seemed confused. My mom looked down at me. She didn't say anything. Only her eyes were reproachful. I listened to her feet descend the stairs. My dad wove his fingers over his stomach. He leaned and shook his head.
"Farouk," he said, looking at me, "are you sure I hit you?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm positive."
"Well, son, that must've been pretty traumatic, if you're bringing it up now." He took a sip and narrowed his eyes at me.
"It was at the time," I said. "But it isn't now."
"So you called a student, stupid, huh?"
"He was being rude."
"Being rude and being stupid aren't synonyms, Farouk."
I laughed. "You're right."
"You don't think your students are stupid, do you?"
"No," I said, defensively. "I don't."
"Teaching is a very personal thing, Farouk. And calling a child stupid is an equally personal thing."
"But, to be fair," he said, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair, "there are students who aren't the brightest bulbs in the lamp. You know what I mean?"
I did. But I never allowed myself to think of them as stupid. I felt bad for my literacy students. I felt most of them had been given an unfair chance, an unfair start at life. Somewhere in their upbringing someone had broken their hearts and ruined them. Somewhere between the second and fourth grades they started hating school and teachers and adults. Somewhere learning for them became a chore they never fully wanted to do. I figured that person or persons had made learning one transaction after the other. My students were told them they had to test well, learn more, be more, but were never explained what my parents explained to me and my siblings. Life was about experiencing things, seeing the world from various lenses, being able to connect with those who were similar and those who were different. It was in these connections that our humanity thrived. Whether they believed in Maat, Nyame, or the goodness of history and culture, my students struggled every day, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I asked my dad what he was reading this week. He told me Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X. He liked Marable's writing and found the book fascinating. He strongly recommended I read it. Before long, I helped him rub down his knees with liniment oil and get back in bed. We talked about teaching, the differences between his time and mine, and my sister and brother. He soon fell quiet. I sat a little longer listening to him sleep.
When I went downstairs, my mom was asleep, too. I placed my empty glass in the dishwasher and stared out of the kitchen window. There were children playing in the field behind their home. No doubt some of them were looking for Olu, Ali, and Little Ayo. Maybe next week, I thought, I'll bring them over. Ayo's folks sure wouldn't mind.
Before I left, I pulled one of my mom's netted shawls over her. She stirred and then her eyes opened. She slid her glasses up, wincing at me.
"You know you shouldn't have done that, Farouk."
"I thought you were cold."
"No, I mean stirring your father that way."
I explained to her what I was trying to accomplish. I explained Bomani and working out and how he seemed like such a great cheerleader. The more I talked the more I sounded like a fool to myself.
Mom sighed at intervals but shook her head a lot. "Farouk," she said, "do you really think you're an alcoholic?"
* * *
Part of any recovery requires some admission of the problem. I decided to unload everything on my mom. There were three incidents that did it. The first had happened when I was hanging out after work. I had gotten pretty torn up and when I got home I just plopped in the bed. Before long, I had to pee. So I got up to pee. Instead of going to the toilet, I went into Ayo's closet and pissed on her designer pants and the throw rug. She called to me: Farouk, what are you doing? I told her: I'm using the bathroom. She said: You're in my closet. I had to admit, I was in a fog. As it lifted, I was indeed in her closet. I went to the bathroom and washed my hands. I came to the bed and belly flopped on top of the sheets. I told her: I'll clean it up in the morning. I wasn't sure, but I had the feeling she punched my back.
The second incident had happened when I was in the basement. It was late at night, and I was grading student writing. I usually drank to get through their God-awful prose. To read their writing sober was to ask me to fail them. So I was reading and drinking when I saw three spider crickets. They were springing all about the basement. I had Erasure in front me since that was the book the kids were writing on. I couldn't use that. So I grabbed The Tunnel and flung it at them. But those things were fast. I grabbed Infinite Jest, Freedom, and The Souls of Black Folk. I kept aiming and missing. Before long, the majority of our library was on the floor. I stood in the middle of booknado. Ayo was at the stairs, yelling: What the hell are you doing? I said: I'm trying to kill spider crickets. I was holding a rock glass in my hand. I took a sip of the remaining Jack and Ginger. Then one unfortunate bastard survived the bookstorm. I threw the glass at it, smashing it and the bug on the crown molding. Ayo just stood there, mouth agape. Unbelievable, she said. I thought she was impressed by my accuracy. Clearly I was wrong.
The last incident, the one that took the cake, was when I got lost on my way from Happy Hour. I must've blacked out because I didn't know where I was, though I was driving on Route 50. I don't know if I was heading over here, I said to my mom, but I was driving toward Annapolis and I couldn't stop myself. Periodically, cars flashed passed me or maybe I flashed passed them. All I knew was I needed to get somewhere. Where, I wasn't sure. When I finally got home, it was just after dawn. The kids were eating breakfast and came running up to me, happy as ever to see me. But Ayo was mad. No, she was hotter than fish grease. She called me into the den. Told me if I didn't stop drinking, she and the kids were gone. She handed me divorce papers. She was serious, mom. And I didn't know what to do. I could barely stand, but I knew she was serious. She stormed out of the den and I went up to our room and went to sleep. When I got up, she had already filled out her portion of the papers. They were on my side on the nightstand. I went to the bathroom and threw up.
* * *
My mom sat quietly after I finished. During my story, she smiled sometimes and she frowned sometimes. But as I recounted the last incident, she only looked concerned.
"Ayo didn't tell me she filled out the papers," she said. "I knew about a couple of those, especially the last one. She was so worried, Farouk. I kept telling her, you're a responsible man. You were just out with your friends. Nothing was the matter. Lord knows, I said, there were times when Ibrahim hung with his brothers until the wee hours. I knew what married women fear when that happens. But I also knew what kind of man we raised you to be. You're not an alcoholic, Farouk. You just need to manager yourself better."
I stood up and looked into my mom's face. She was right. I wasn't an alcoholic. I was drinker, yes; but not an alcoholic. I thanked and kissed her on the cheek. I promised that I would bring the kids over next weekend. She seemed happy about that; said she would make some pie.
I drove away, thinking I should head over to Ayo's parents. But I was kind of hungry. I hadn't eaten much in anticipation of talking with my dad. I had to admit, there really wasn't one sad moment in my life. There were many. I only selected the slapping incident because I wanted to have something to say to Bomani. That was childish. And sad. I still wanted to fit in. At my age, trying to get him, a cool guy, to like me was pathetic. I pulled into Bonefish Grill.
It was crowded at the bar, so I sat at on one side of the community table. People were cheering one of the early NBA conference final games. It was the Wizards and the Hawks. The game was tied and John Wall hit an amazing three-pointer over Al Horford. Then, with time just about over, Kyle Korver sent the game into overtime with an even longer, near half-court, buzzer-beater. Everyone yelled in exhilaration. But there was a certain sound I heard that caused me to stand and look through the crowd. I was sure it was Bomani's voice. And wasn't this the perfect place for us both to hide: the other side of Maryland, far away from prying eyes?
My server came and I ordered the Bang-Bang shrimp and a Jack and Ginger. I settled down but was still trying to see through the gang of people huddled at the bar. I heard someone yell, "Let's go Wizards!" and I knew I was right. My server placed my Jack and Ginger on the table with bread. It was perfect timing. The crowd of men and women in their Wizards jerseys or Hawks hats and tanks parted. Bomani was talking to some guy in a similar long black T-shirt. The backs of their shirts had Hidden Wells in bold white letters. Bomani was leaning close to the guy but talking loud enough for me to hear him. A half-full pitcher of beer stood between them. The guy's head bounced to Bomani's words, as if he were trying to ignore Bomani's drunkenness.
"Walls gonna, he's gonna take this damn thing over, you watch, he's gonna dish it to Beale and Beale's gonna dish it back and then, you watch, he'd gonna win this thing."
"I gotta pee," Bomani said, "hold my sport. Ha! I mean my spot." He rose uneasily and then the guy looked at him, holding up his hand as if to brace Bomani. "I'm fine," Bomani said. "I've been in worse situations than this."
When he turned he saw me. He smiled. But then he looked at my glass.
"You shouldn't be having one of those," he said.
"I'm okay," I said. "I've been in worse situations, too."
He laughed then saluted me.
I raised my glass. I toasted: to freedom. And I had a good time.
Kofi Adisa: I live in Bowie, Maryland with my wife and two children. I earned his Ph.D. in literature from the University of Connecticut. I am currently writing a novel. "Hidden Wells" is my first publication and is part of a collection of interconnected stories.