My father is an astronaut, a moonwalker, a star cruiser. Prose and I are the daughters of a rocket-riding explorer. When we were young he left on a top secret mission. He said, “I’ll be back. Don’t wait up. I’m off to save the world.” Grace swears he didn’t say the last part, but she just didn’t hear him. He only said those words to me. When he left I felt a knot the size of a watermelon swell inside my stomach.
While away he missed many memory makers. Birthdays, funerals, the Prose goes to preschool party, my first dance recital, our move from the apartment on 3rd Ave to the bungalows on 10th, and the 2nd Ave School Father-Daughter Dance.
My uncle escorted me to the dance, which would have been fine if not for the fact that he’s only eleven years older than me and opted for a tuxedo shirt with a bow tie and vest painted on the front instead of spending money to rent a suit.
My granny taught me how to hit a softball. She did a pretty good job, but at my first game, when the pitcher struck me out, she ran out on the field, cursed and kicked the umpire and then dragged me out of the batter’s box. It could have been a clean getaway if not for the fact that her bright yellow sun hat became wedged in the doorframe of her Chrysler LeBaron. Turning her head from side to side she crushed the brim of her bonnet as the city view from the baseball diamond orbited around her.
While my father, the astronaut, moonwalker, star cruiser, rocket-riding explorer, was off saving the world, he missed the Prose goes to first grade party, cousin J.C.’s release from juvie, cousin James’ first-place win in the science fair, and the emergence of two uninvited guests.
I woke up one day and they were just there. No training bra, no warning sign, just two imposing mounds. I went from sliding head first into home plate and double dutching in double time, to side-sleeping, shoulder-strapping, eye-turning boobs. They were the topic of discussion wherever I went. “What happened?” asked Prose. “Daaaannng!” chimed Derrick, Jamal, and the 2nd Ave crew. And most irritating was Grace’s: “I’m so proud of you.” She said this as if I had purposely set out to produce these oversized objects.
And now at school Jeanine and Janet are upset because I got ’em first, the boys are cruel because they’ll never have ’em, and Mrs. Jensen no longer calls on me, even when I raise my hand, which I’m convinced is due to the fact that mine are bigger than hers.
For weeks after my two guests moved in I went to school, came home, did chores, slept on my side, and started my day all over again. In class I focused on becoming invisible. I willed my existence into the shape of a bird that could fly out the window, out the invisible gates around 2nd Ave, and out of this neighborhood. The brainpower it took to become a bird in flight clouded my hearing, making it impossible for me to recognize the repeated “Miss Hunter. Miss Zora Hunter!” hurling from Mrs. Jensen’s lips. When I opened my eyes everyone was looking at me. Even Jeanine and Janet had set their eyes in my direction.
“Are we interrupting you, Miss Hunter?”
“No, Mrs. Jensen.”
“Are you ready to tell us who you will be bringing to Career Day?”
Career Day. The day when students pretend to care and parents pretend they actually like what they do to pay the light bill.
“Um, for Career Day, I’m going to bring my…father.”
“Okay then. It looks like everyone is scheduled.”
My father. Even I don’t know why I said that. Grace would never be able to get the time off. My uncle fixes cars with a guy named Titus whose claim to fame is putting five Burger King Whoppers in his mouth at one time. My brain was drained from being a bird. I skipped breakfast that day. My breasts were expanding by the hour. All these things helped in the creation of one impossible task: bringing my father to Career Day.
When the Friday of Career Day finally arrived I knew I had to come up with something. That morning I packed up James’ junior scientist mail-order telescope and his poster-size map of the constellations. I would explain to the class, without divulging too much information, the complicated demands of my father’s career.
Once in class, I positioned the telescope on its fold-out legs and held the map in front of me.
“My father sends his deepest regrets for not being able to make it to Career Day. He’s an astronaut, so as you can see it would be very difficult for him to make it here from outer space. I thought he might get a special leave but he’s working on a top secret mission.” I directed that statement at Mrs. Jensen. “When it’s all over I’m sure he won’t mind coming in and showing everyone his space stuff.”
I finished my speech and was very proud until the entire class broke into laughter. Their voices chimed together, fading and growing interchangeably like the school tower bell. The giggles, high and low, competed with the deep, throaty whispers of parents quieting their kids. I even thought I heard Mrs. Jensen laugh but I couldn’t bear to lower the map I now used to hide my tears in order to look in her direction. I bit down on my lower lip to stop it from quivering and the louder the laughter, the harder my teeth sunk into my flesh. It was not until I could taste the salt from my tears mix with the warm blood in my mouth that I set my unfortunate lip free. She motioned me back to my chair and the frown on her face accompanied by my name on the board let me know that I was in trouble.
When the bell rang, Maxine Coleman walked over and said, “My daddy says your daddy is a moonwalker alright. He moonwalked like MJ right out the back door.” With that she rolled her eyes and ran to catch up with her father. I attempted to follow her but Mrs. Jensen cleared her throat in that don’t-you-dare-move type of way. I slumped down deep into my chair.
“Miss Hunter, I admire your creativity but lying is unacceptable.”
“No buts. I will have to make a call to your mother.”
I wanted to say, well that’s why mine are bigger than yours. I even opened my mouth to let the words come out. All that exited was, “Can I go now?”
As I walked out of the room I thought I heard her laugh again. My sadness was a huge hand scooping me up and tossing me down the hallway. I was no more than an insignificant pebble skipping across the lake-blue lockers and landing on the school steps. From there I ran. I ran through the alley and around Pete’s liquor store. I ran by “To Go’s” pizza and on 4th Ave I ran into Jeanine and Janet. To let me know they were no longer mad they began to run too. We took all the shortcuts our parents told us not to take. We cut through Mrs. Jackson’s backyard and hopped the fence behind the abandoned warehouse. We sprinted across the parking lot of First Zion Baptist church and darted across Market Street with its broken traffic signal, dodging oncoming traffic, leaving the crossing guard chasing behind us. We raced all the way to my block and then we stopped. We knew this would be my last stretch of freedom before punishment set in. By this time the warm air had dried my tears only to make way for fresh ones. Jeanine and Janet reached under their tops and handed me the tissue boobs they had been wearing for the last two weeks.
James was waiting for us when we made it to the house.
“Ain’t no use crying now. Your mom got the call and is on her way home from work. I’m ‘spose to tell you not to go anywhere. An astronaut, a freakin’ astronaut. I always knew you were a space case.”
The sky turned purple and then black before Grace made it home. I spent the time in between watching the headlights of passing cars hit my wall and then slide onto the ceiling. I waited for the one that would shine directly into my window to let me know the Toyota had pulled in the driveway. When the waiting dragged endlessly I closed my eyes as tight as I could and then opened them slowly, allowing the colored circles that appeared in the air to bounce off of each other and melt back into blackness. Eventually, I just listened to the ticking of the mahogany clock on the hall wall. I must have dozed off because I never saw the headlights or heard the key in the door. It wasn’t until she flipped on the light switch that I realized Grace, and my pending fate, were home.
I jumped out of bed, closed my eyes once more, and dropped my pants. I even flinched twice before I realized I wasn’t getting hit.
“Lying is wrong. I’ve raised you to be an honest person. You must never lie. Even when the truth hurts so much that the lie becomes the only way to lessen the pain, you still mustn’t lie.”
She yanked up my pants and turned me around to face her. Tears pooled in her eyes. She rubbed the sides of her forehead as if trying to massage away her thoughts. We remained in silence interrupted only by the theme to Star Wars hummed by James as he walked by my room.
It was one year, nine months, and seventeen days before we saw our father again. He missed the Prose goes to the dentist party, James’ graduation from middle school, and the emergence of Jeanine and Janet’s four long-awaited guests.
He stayed for a week this time. He had a room at the Ramada near school and every day he stood waiting for me on the same steps where I used to wait for him. He tried going by the house to see Prose but every time he came she dove under the dining room table. On the last day he greeted me with a teddy bear and two giant pixie sticks. Two things I loved when I was nine. The gifts let me know that he was leaving again. It hurt less this time. Only a small knot the size of an acorn rested in my stomach. The taxi pulled up and waited impatiently. My father kissed me on the forehead, twice. Once for me and once for Prose. He had gained weight since the last time and his poked-out belly pressed painfully against my chest. The cab driver got out and opened the passenger door. My father walked backwards, almost moonwalking, his eyes fixed on me until he bumped into the rear of the cab. As they drove off, I read the bumper sticker on the back: “Hollywood, a place for the stars.” This was to be my father’s final landing.
Photo by Adrian Scottow