Don’t Be Late

DON’T BE LATE

by

Dwight Hilson

They said it started west of Port-au-Prince; Carrefour is west of Port-au-Prince—maybe no more than an hour drive—and I am from Carrefour. This place was a ghetto, for sure, another nasty place so easily found in Haiti: houses with too few rooms, shacks really, with rusted tin roofs that turn rainwater brown before it disappear down muddy, narrow streets. We shared an outhouse and walked a half-kilometer to get water from a stream near the tired gray trees with curled leafs; your arms get strong hauling those big plastic buckets for your mother. And don’t dare stop to play with other kids or you know what will be waiting for you.

I was the oldest, Jean Claude Laratte (same as my father), four of us born in Haiti and another in the US, but my mother, Solange, she would never hesitate to beat us all with a stick. Let me tell you, I love my parents, I truly do, but, man, sometimes it is not easy. In Haiti, your parents control you—like a slave—and, although my parents never showed love (their parents never showed them any love, so how would they know?), I think they still felt love. My mother loved Jesus, that was for sure, and she dragged us to church, a whitewashed room with bench pews scratched by bored fingernails, more than once a week to hear Minister St. Pierre talk of the evils we best avoid. Man, that church was hot; it was as if they believed a gentle breeze might bring in the vodou. It made me daydream of my father’s car, a black Ford Continental he drove for the US ambassador (an embassy car, of course), and such a sweet car with the coolest AC you ever feel. I loved to ride in that car, but my father would always repeat his big rule: “Never be late.” And, man, that guy was never—ever—late. To my father, I think “Don’t be late” meant, “I love you.”

But I was late anyway, even to school (it was seven kilometers away!) where the beatings were worse than at home. The teachers kept a special stick, made of braided sheepskin, and they’d whip you for anything. My arms and legs always, always had welts, black and pink ones that warm sunshine would not darken, and when I showed my mother she yelled: “Why don’t you do what they say.” Those words stung worse than her stick. But that was life in Carrefour and when you are a kid it is all normal. What else can you know? You play and laugh and learn to stay away from your mother when she is mad (and learn to hide her favorite beating stick, too).

I was the skinniest kid you ever saw, no fat anywhere; my friends called me the “Living Skeleton.” But I was fast and they did not tease when I had the soccer ball. Soccer was the thing everybody loved. Thirty people would jam into the house of a neighbor with electricity and television to watch any soccer match. That was the best: nobody beat you during a soccer match. I was 14 (and can you believe over 180 centimeters tall?) when the World Cup of 1978 was on that television. Of course it was hot, this was Haiti, and I stood in the back to sweat and look over all the heads as we watch the final. Argentina scores first, and even on that little TV you could see the stadium in Argentina shake; the match so close and with only eight minutes left, the Dutch launch the ball center and they head-in a perfect shot for the tie. Oh man, everyone yelled and I was dripping. Overtime. And Argentina drives down the field, Daniel Bertoni chases the ball, no one breathes, I could feel a vibration tightening my chest like coiled rope, and I knew the future—I knew—goal!

I kicked a dirty black tennis ball all the way home, but I knew the silence was no good. My mother washed clothes and didn’t even look at me; she looked at nothing and said, “Li te pati. Te pati.” He left. And it was three years before I saw my father again.

***

I remember a basketball court as the start of my new life. Do you know I never even knew basketball in Carrefour? But when I saw the court near Flatbush Avenue I looked like a small boy staring at an ice-cream cone—and me now taller than two meters high! The players ran and jumped, they slam into each other, and the fast ones bounced the ball through their legs and in circles around the slow ones. And then I saw what I could not believe: one player catch the ball and jumps high, the ball above the bent metal rim, and slam—the ball jammed through the hoop. I knew I could do the same thing, but when the players point to me and wave me to play, I walked away.

Brooklyn was the greatest adventure, surely, but I was scared. Before my father left Haiti we would hear the stories that Baby Doc was crazy, worse than Papa Doc even, that if they hear of you saying the wrong thing the Tonton Macoutes would make you disappear in the night, and I worried that my father might become one of those, but I never knew his plan. Whispers told of people leaving on boats only to drown or, worse, be sent back to those Tonton Macoutes. But on the day we were to leave, it was on an airplane: my mother, my brothers, sister, and me flew on an airplane! To New York City! To Brooklyn! And we had papers, legal!

We moved into an apartment between Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues, third floor, with a bathroom, water, and a kitchen for my mother—it was so beautiful to see—and not too far from the piano factory where our father worked. But I was terrified, more so than by the thoughts back in Haiti, because the only words I could speak were in languages, French and Creole, that would not help me beyond the few city blocks near our new home. I would need to learn English, and until I could I would only watch the basketball players with who I so badly wanted to play. But this was only one problem!

My cousin Franklin took me to Nostrand Avenue on a most sunny day, and I can remember the sights like yesterday—more girls than I could imagine were in the whole world. I was so tall, my head above everybody, I could see all their tight, bright colors and their skin so dark and smooth—I was in love with them all. This one girl with a tight purple top and eyes too dark to believe looked at me with a smile, but I had no words to say, and I felt more nervous than seeing a teacher hold the beating stick. I asked Franklin, “Please, man, tell her she’s cute. Tell her I think she is cute.”

And he says, “No, you say it.” But I plead like my mother crying a prayer and he walks to her, his head shaking and laughing.

He talks to her—she looks at me—I wave—and Franklin loses his smile. Now, it is those girls laughing and Franklin says, “They say you are ugly, like a black stork, and no girls will like you.”

Helpless was how I felt; I wanted to run and hide, right away, everyone looking at me so tall, and now, so ugly, too? I wanted to tell those girls they were ugly, but I knew this was not true. Maybe this, being in Brooklyn, was the dream of most everyone back in Carrefour, but at that moment it was all too new for me. I would not go back to Nostrand Avenue for a long time.

At least in school (Samuel J. Tilden High School was where I had to go), they did not beat you with sticks. This was a truly wonderful thing I did not expect, and do you know what? For the first time I enjoyed school. And do you know what made it better still? I already told you—basketball.

They made me play basketball.

Just like they made me learn English.

And, those two things showed me how to be.

During games I could feel the electricity, a noise I never heard in Haiti: This gym buzzer shrieked like a siren, every seat and bench filled with screams and shouting, sneakers squeaked against wood, and every time I catch a pass, leap high, and slam home the ball, I hear the loudspeakers yell, “JC—JC Laratte—Two!” Oh, I can tell you I couldn’t wait for the ball. I was not ugly now—I was a star—and even when I dripped sweat down muscles you could now see, so many fine girls stand near and gave me big smiles.

***

High school could not last forever, I knew. I wore the gown and cap to graduation and you could not miss my tall head, high above the others. I could see my mother dressed in her church best, all white, with lace near her neck and again along the brim of her hat, and although she was too far to see clearly I think she wiped her eye when they hand me my diploma. My father did not come to the ceremony: That would have made him late for work.

What could I do now? I did not hesitate.

I pierced my ears with gold studs, and my hair grew long, twirled into dreadlocks down near my shoulders—my sister said I looked like a black pharaoh prince—and I joined the messenger service. No bicycle though, can you imagine me, so tall, riding through the streets on a bicycle? No way. I rode the subway—everywhere. I was fast, fast, fast. Brooklyn to downtown, up to Midtown then back down, to Queens, anywhere. I learned all the stations and picked the subway car I knew would stop near station stairs where I could leap up to the street with my long, floating stride. I was never late! Now this was freedom.

Every day, I rode on a mission, and did the girls notice? Oh, yes. I showed my arms on warm days, most days, and never sat in open seats, holding the hanging steel loops, my smile high above all others. They say people avoid the eyes in the subway, but when I looked at girls they smiled back, and talked, and my English was now excellent. I met so many girls on the trains.

First came Leticia, a Puerto Rican girl, only 16, but so cute and so easy to visit, with her apartment near the IRT; I could speed my deliveries and have time with her before her parents came home. We never told anyone when she became pregnant. Better wait and see, but I did love her with all my heart, and should I marry her if the baby came? I tell you that I would have—but it did not.

I met Serena Henderson in the subway, too. I looked up the tunnel for the next train—no lights in the darkness—and when I looked back, there she stood. Such a tight skirt and jacket, all business and curves, with skin and eyes dark as night: How could I not fall in love? She lived in the South Bronx and told me I was handsome—no, she said I was the most handsome man she ever knew, and although she worked in an office she told me I was special. After I became a citizen, she knew I wanted a hack license and she said, “Do it.” Serena was a dream come true and when my parents moved to New Rochelle, New York, it was so easy to live with her.

Now I was flying in a cab—exhilarating—learning the rhythm of the city: FDR Drive only for morning fares headed downtown, forget Madison and Fifth midday, airports only midmorning and late afternoon (never, ever drive the Van Wyck or LIE), then downtown again for the opposite cycle. And who did I drive in my cab? Everyone—Tom Brokaw, Gregory Hines (before he died), Michael Douglas, and Dr. Ruth, too. I talked to them all and they loved it. If you listened close enough, you could even learn how to be rich. When I came home to Serena and we told about our days, I can tell you that I felt rich.

But did I think about Haiti? Definitely no. Why should I? I am an American and never want to go back to Carrefour. Why would I?

Only because my mother said she would die if I did not.

***

I borrowed a cab when my parents invited me for dinner. I did not bring Serena since my mother pretended she did not exist (I knew she thought that to live together, unmarried, was a sin), but I hugged them both, my arms wrapping all the way around as if they had never hit me with a stick, and I sat in the kitchen, beside the green plastic tablecloth, where my mother could cook and still talk. She stirred a big steaming pot; the aroma of tomatoes, meat, and spice filled the room. My father did not say anything. And in the momentary silence, once again, I knew—I knew—my life was about to change.

Everything was arranged.

“Do you remember Emilie St. Pierre?” my mother asked. And, of course, I knew the daughter of her best friend and our old minister, a minister who my mother had prayed with as if he stood next to Jesus Christ, but at that moment, I could not describe Emilie if my life depended on it. “She needs to come here, and her family, too.” I knew what my mother would say next. “And you must go back and marry her.” She did not ask, she had decided, and although I begged for her to change her mind, I did not expect that she would say the thing—the cheapest thing—that was like a knife pushed hard into my chest. She said, “If you don’t do this wedding it could be the cause of my death.”

I did not tell Serena. How could I? She would not believe that I had no choice, that I would fly, once again, to Haiti, and marry Emilie St. Pierre. How could she? The knife wouldn’t leave my heart, but I pretended everything was fine, so fine, and waited until just one week before the plane ticket said I must leave. I held her hands, hands so soft, her nails perfect pink, and I looked straight in her eyes—and I lied—I said I didn’t love her anymore.

My mother made me lie and it was too easy.

I stood in Minister St. Pierre’s church, that same whitewashed room I hated as a child, and wished someone would stand and yell “No!” But it did not happen.

Emilie thought it was all real; she believed I was an answer to her dreams and I let her believe it. After only one week I flew home. Emilie’s papers would take time; she had to stay, and I felt so much relief when, out the plane window, I saw only the blue ocean.

I kept a room at my parents’ house, but I was never there; with a gym bag in the trunk holding everything I could need—I lived wherever I was, went to clubs every night, slept with the girls who took me home, and only drove to New Rochelle when I knew my mother was not there.

And the same week I learned Emilie was pregnant I also met Savannah Carlisle.

***

She was Jamaican, and when she hailed my cab I only saw her arm reaching out from the sidewalk curb. But when I saw her in the rearview mirror—lips full, but not too much so, straight, brown-streaked hair, and eyes too dark green to be true—I turned around so she could see my smile. Savannah worked midtown, near Grand Central, which is where I dropped her on that fare. I came back the next day and left a note at the receptionist desk. And the next day she left me a note that said, “Yes.” We shared a juicy kiss on that first date and can you believe she lived in Mount Vernon—so close to New Rochelle—and had a little boy, Jimmy, only three?

This was a special time: Emilie still in Carrefour, now with my daughter, Ruth Solange Laratte, whose birth I missed but who looked so happy and cute in all the photos; and me racing to Mount Vernon more and more, where Savannah would do anything—anything—for my love, and her boy played ball with me like I was the father he did not know. This was a dream time.

And it lasts for three years!

I did not know what to do when Emilie called to say she and Ruth would soon land at JFK. The whole family planned to go, in many cars, to greet them.

Perhaps the right thing, the thing I should have done, was to lie to Savannah, just like Serena, and tell her I did not love her. But I did not want to do this again. Wasn’t it enough to marry Emilie as my mother wished? Father a daughter? Arrange papers for her whole family? What else did I owe Carrefour, or Haiti? All I ever knew was how everyone wanted to leave there. All these questions swirled like the breeze through my cab and I drove on, fast as I could, to find Savannah.

I can tell you truthfully that I did not know what I would say until I saw her green eyes. And what do you believe I did? Even now I cannot believe it.

I asked Savannah to marry me—I did. And she said, “Yes!”

Now it would be a crazy time.

My life was like the Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, where the Cross Bronx and 95 and The Hutch join like fingers locked in the sky; one wrong turn and you will drive miles to return to where you wanted to go. I was an excellent—excellent—husband: Emilie (and my parents, too) never suspected I didn’t love her. And I was an excellent—excellent—fiancé. Savannah never suspected I had a wife and daughter. How was this possible? Sometimes I do not know how they believed me when I said I drove the night shift, alternate nights, so regular that it could not be possible. I guess it is easiest to believe what you want.

It helps, too: Never be late.

I stayed on the move, driving—maybe a little fast at times—on every highway, every side street, through every shortcut, from JFK-Newark-LaGuardia, from Staten Island-Brooklyn-Queens, from the east side-the west side-downtown, from anywhere, back to Savannah and Jimmy in Mount Vernon or Emilie and Ruth in New Rochelle. I drove with the windows open, even in winter, the cool air hitting my eyes, a loose shirt flapping to let the breeze wash my body, and at night the white stripes would turn into solid lines, which I imagined would grow into walls for my protection if I could keep driving in their center.

How long did this last? Maybe any time was too long, but I can tell you it was many months that I lived this lie; that I lived to make all these women happy. And, as I grew more tired every day, my muscles became soft, no time for the gym, and I lived on the sodas and chips in my cab or my Honda, which only made my insides twist and tangle like a thornbush. Keep moving; never be late, watch the lines ahead, drive faster.

Savannah asked me each weekend when we would set the date, she wanted me to be Jimmy’s father, she wanted me to stop the night shift, she wanted us together.

Emilie wanted another baby, she wanted me to work closer to home, she wanted us to move into our own house, she wanted us together.

What could I do but drive, longer hours, more fares, longer fares, avoid tolls, sleep in line at the airport, and always, no matter what, stay away from traffic jams.

I worked past dinnertime on the night Emilie told me to be home early, she had something to tell me—it could not be good. And Savannah, too, called to say we had to talk—it couldn’t wait—I should take a break and she would be waiting—not good at all.

I picked up more fares, all in Manhattan, theater district to the Village, meatpacking district to Tribeca, Soho up to midtown, across the park, down to NYU, but I’d told them both I wouldn’t be late.

But I can tell you I did not know where to go.

Broadway was stop-and-go past Union Square and a red light held me near Madison Square to stare at the gold-topped tower until the green. Sometimes I took Third north, but it can be busy, even late, and the traffic lights are hard to time. Madison is better, but I had no destination in mind. Green lights all the way to Murray Hill, the Empire State Building lit red, white and blue in the warm haze at the top. Stay in the green lights, I told myself, stay in the green. Drive fast—but not too much so—don’t outrun the green.

So few cars, it is strange.

One red light in the green, but no one sees me go past, up the hill by the fanciest stores.

All I can think is to stay in the green, to 125th, to Third Avenue Bridge, then decide where to go.

A cab blocks the best lane, I am losing the green, and Don’t Walk signs flash in red.

I pass him; the wind feels so good, up the hill at 79th, fast, back into the green again.

Only headlights are behind me, downhill to 96th—too fast—I’m catching the red lights, but the timing is so perfect, I know the light will change, exactly when I arrive I am sure, there are only the lights, everything so perfect and free. And then I know—I know—what will happen.

A green light flashes too bright, streetlights spin like shooting stars on a wave, and I am weightless in a dream.

***

Jimani is a bigger mess than you have ever seen. Our bus, just a large gray van, is stuck in a long line of trucks, military, ambulances, more buses, every kind you can imagine, every one trying to enter Haiti, or leave; a jumble for sure with helicopters thumping overhead, too. We all saw the television report of the girl, only five, her leg crushed and infected, and the mother would rather she die than lose the leg, the girl screaming at her mother’s words. I could not understand such a wish; it had been so long since I was there. Yes, after our first mission in Santa Domingo, I did say we must go to Haiti, that I wanted to build a playground—a basketball playground—in Carrefour, that our work was just practice for what we could do on the other side of the border. But as I said those words I still told people what I thought they wanted to hear, and, in truth, I was not yet ready to return.

We came back on this second mission to build more houses to protect the poor from the island’s worst winds. Pastor Davila organized us, most of our team from the YMCA, where my fitness clients call me “JC” or “Mister Cardio”—which I love. We were in a sweet groove framing, wiring, hammering nails with a single perfect stroke, and I was on the roof, our day almost over, when I felt that sensation. Everything became clear and still, birds flew out of the sun, and, once again, I knew—I knew. The shake was no more than if a cement truck had rumbled past, but our team all stopped working, and when we returned to our camp I already knew the news would be horrible.

Both Emilie and Savannah forgave me, only god knows why. My wife was pregnant (that was what she needed to tell me), and she wanted to name him Jean Claude. Of course, she kicked me out of the house and my mother agreed with her, which I understood but would have traded for an old stick beating (my mother tells me she loves me, and I believe her, but she agrees with Emilie to not divorce me—as punishment). If Savannah is upset she doesn’t say so; she is an island girl and knows that a reminder of acceptance, used at the right time, can be punishment enough. She and I are together now, full time, and her son, Jimmy, has a baby sister who he loves. Savannah would have more babies, but I tell her, “Don’t you think I have enough?”

I never saw the car enter Madison Avenue from the cross street, a Ford Bronco they told me; he must’ve been trying to stay in the crosstown green. My Honda flipped three times in the air, wheels flew off, rolling up the avenue, and gas spilled everywhere. The force knocked me out. But can you believe it happened beside Mt. Sinai Hospital? It did; the Emergency Room right there. My leg was broken, four places, but I awoke in a room above Fifth Avenue, where I could see the green leafs in Central Park and I wondered if it was heaven. A nurse said, “Does your mother pray?” and I just looked at her until she repeats it, “Does your mother pray?” and I must’ve nodded because she said, “Well, she should keep on praying.”

And I can never forget those words.

THE END