Little Dipper

by Tamuira Reid

When the father of your child is in jail, pray even if you don’t believe in God. Pray even though in your head of heads you know it won’t do shit. Stop staring at the walls, at the clock, at the phone. At your baby, now eight, sleeping next to you, his sneakers, caked with mud, still tied to his feet. Pray because it will distract you from what’s coming, from a conversation millions of mothers have already had with their sons. You are not different, not an exception to some rule. Start praying instead of feeling sorry for yourself. Buck the fuck up because he will need you.

When the father of your child is in jail, think back to the beginning. When just being in the same room with him made you feel dizzy, made every cell in your body turnover. That crazy-ass, lightning speed chemistry, that undeniable force forever pushing then pulling you apart.

He wasn’t always the father of your child. Before that he was your friend then your boyfriend then someone neither here nor there. Now he’s the person you worry most about when you wake-up in the middle of the night.

When the father of your son is in jail, the details will haunt but not surprise you. How he got involved with the wrong person, a toxic relationship, an unhealthy situation. How he was blamed for things he couldn’t possibly have done. You’re scared for him in ways you’ve never been before. You’ve watched enough episodes of Orange is the New Black to think you’d know how to handle life on the inside. You could shank a bitch if you had to. But he never could. It’s just not in him.

You pretend not to notice the old photo your son carries around with him, tucked between the pages of a Captain Underpants book. The only photo of his dad that’s weathered the storm of moving apartment to apartment and this life to that life. The photo that proves Oliver Duffy has a father, something tangible he can show when his friends ask well where is he then? The photo he stares at while you’re staring at the walls. He tries to pick out the similarities between the faces, using his tiny camping flashlight to study the nose, the mouth, the hair, the way hia lips curl up to the left side when he smiles. Mine do that, too, he thinks, satisfied.

When the father of your son is in jail, remember it’s not his fault and it never really was. The long nights he spent screaming at you or himself or at a truth that didn’t exist. Or the weeks that passed without a sound, without an email or text to say he was still alive, when he was living on the beach somewhere out west, huddled under a sleeping bag, taking food from strangers only to give it away later. To give it to those who needed it more. The months of silence leading up to his arrest when it was so quiet you swore you could actually hear the blood flowing through your body and the leaves falling from the tree outside the bedroom window. Not his fault, the jail or the absence. The addiction or the sickness. The before or the after. He was never made for this world. He was fucked from the get-go.

Take the pills to sleep at night, the ones you’ve always resisted but that will help lessen the blow. Pills to stop the anxiety. To escape the inescapable. And when your therapist asks you how you’re doing you say fine and bad and okay? You use your feeling words like a pro even though the only thing you feel is cold.

When the father of your son is in jail, you decide to keep it to yourself. You let your son stay eight for a while, let his fantasy stay intact for as long as you can. You pull him closer to you, his drool spilling onto your chest in peaceful rest. And when the pills kick in, you go to that place, the sweet spot, the one in your mind where hope still exists. Remembering the day he moved to your city with only a duffle bag filled with self-help books and some underwear, a California-style jacket that would prove worthless against the winter months ahead. The fourth floor walk-up in the old Harlem brownstone with the slanting floors and the leaking roof. He used your good cooking pots to collect the water as it rained into the living room, placing them strategically under swollen cracks, waiting for them to fill before dumping them into the toilet. You slept side by side in a bed made for one person, and when your son was born he was tucked between the heat of your bodies where you could check to make sure he still breathed. What kind of bed are you in now, you wonder. Are you warm enough? His 6’5 frame never fit comfortably anywhere. Force yourself to stop wondering about what you can’t – and could never – control and shift gears before you get stuck.

Instead let yourself dream, of the things they will talk about when they meet again. God. Aliens or no aliens. Space and dark matter. Son telling father about each of the constellations, surprised by how much he also knows about them, how both of you spent time as kids, alone in a room, tracing your fingers over their bold and fluid shapes in a book, speculating what life among them might be like, if it was better than being down here. Son telling father about his first handmade telescope made from a toilet paper roll and the shiny black pair of super powered binoculars his cousin gave him and the NASA-strength looking scopes on the Brooklyn waterfront, where when he was five he caught his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty while he was searching for the little dipper. Son telling father he believes in reincarnation and maybe heaven and if he came back as anything he’d want it to be an orca because orcas are cool, do you like orcas? And when they run out of things to say, when words become less important, they will stand quietly together, broad shoulder to broad shoulder, under the star-filled sky.