Albany with Sophie



This is an excerpt from my untitled memoir-in-progress.

"Does she have air conditioning?" I said before I was able to edit myself. Of course, my parents didn't even have air conditioning. Most people in upstate New York in the '90s didn't have air conditioning, certainly not central, and a lot of people didn't even have window or wall units.

"She maybe does in the bedroom," Sophie said, looking as though she was wondering how hot the apartment would be.

"Do you know where we're sleeping?" Again, it just popped out, despite Sophie's easily aggravated temperament.

"Girl, I dunno, stop asking me questions I don't know." She shifted on the step, looking away in annoyance.

"You're so bitchy when you're hungry," I said. It must have been the heat and the thirst making me say these things.

She clicked her tongue. "Girl, shuddup," she spat, but she couldn't help but smile because I'd totally nailed it.

"So, um," I said, slapping my knees, "how long do we wait before I call my dad?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

Then we both went quiet again and she returned to judgmentally inspecting strangers and I returned to staring at nothing.

"Well fuck me!" I heard Sophie exclaim, startling me from a dehydrated haze.

I turned toward whatever Sophie was glaring at and saw a chubby but gorgeous woman in her early twenties taking a slow stroll towards us, holding the hand of a little boy who was sucking his fingers and babbling child speak.

"There you are, bitch!" the woman said and her little boy pointed at Sophie.

"We've only been here for like three fuckin' hours, girl!" Sophie yelled and cackled jovially.

Sophie introduced her cousin to me. I extended my hand to shake, but I wasn't sure if that was a widely practiced custom in the ghetto of Albany. She laughed at me, but not so much in a mocking as a condescending, aw look at the cute white girl way. "How you doin', girl?" she said.

I nodded and blurted something that meant "nice to meet you" but in far less comprehensible phrasing. There was no getting around it. I was not in my element, so I just needed to shut up and observe.

"So?" Sophie said, nudging her cousin playfully. "Where the fuck ya been, girl? We been waitin'!" Sophie suddenly sounded much more inner city than I recalled her sounding an hour ago.

"I'm sorry, girl, we was over at my girl's house around the corner." Apparently, her girl had had some chronic of which she wanted to partake.

"I wish you'd brought me some, girl," Sophie said, cackling deep in her throat.

I just kind of looked at my friend, taking note of these movements in her personality traits.

Her cousin, who had big diamond-shaped green eyes and full, pink lips, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail that spread into a soft mess of tight curls down her neck, was absolutely stunning. She was wearing ghetto lounge clothes--faded jeans and a tight tank top, and even though she was a size sixteen, her belly was smooth and flat, the weight distributed in her breasts and hips. She wore big red hoops in her ears, and even without makeup, she looked as fresh as a spring flower. I could hardly believe she and Sophie were related.

Sophie's cousin picked up her little boy who kept staring and pointing at Sophie, and led us up the stairs and into her apartment.

It was a three-room box with peeling paint (probably lead) and the kitchen essentially had enough space in which to rotate in place from sink (which was piled high with dirty dishes and various fruit flies both dead and living) to stove and vice versa. There was a patio door off the kitchen with black bars on it and beyond were piles of old clothes and trash. The living room had a couch, also piled with clothes of varying degrees of cleanliness judging by the smell and appearance. There was no TV--a choice of necessity, I assumed--and no windows in the living room, and it was decidedly dank and bereft of spirit. Sophie's cousin was dealing with her boy, who was wriggling and pouty, as she assured Sophie that she and I would be sleeping in the bedroom. She and the boy would sleep in the living room. I wanted to protest, as this sounded completely ridiculous and backwards, but Sophie was pleased and her cousin seemed to understand Sophie well, so I kept my mouth shut and nodded, looking at Sophie and hoping she would do the right thing. But no.

The little boy was getting madder by the moment and his mother was raising her voice in harmony--the kind of tense moment you feel coming to a head, the where you freeze in discomfort and wish not to witness. Over this rising chaos, Sophie said, "Whatchu got to eat, girl? I'm starrrrrving!" which her cousin ignored, not necessarily willfully because (now as a mother, twenty years later looking back) I know that in those moments when you're wrestling with a cranky three-year-old, you don't have an inkling of the world around you.

Sophie waved her hand dismissively. "Nevermind, girl, I'll go and look for myself." A statement she surely thought was an incomparably generous one, and she padded to the kitchen. I followed Sophie, if only because I wanted to stay within the familiar and also get away from the mother-son wrestling match.

Sophie casually went through the few cabinets in her cousin's kitchen. I glanced over her shoulder when she opened the slim fridge, which was stocked with something that looked like iced tea and a few condiments. The cabinets had assorted plastic plates, bowls, and cups with cartoon figures on them, but not much more than a couple of cans of vegetables and generic spaghetti. Sophie waddled disappointedly back into the living room, pulling a cigarette out of her pack and putting it between her lips.

"What's a matter, girl, you ain't got your food stamps this month?" she said and laughed heartily, as though this were a chummy joke.

Though her cousin seemed to have tuned out Sophie's voice up until this point, this she heard. She looked up at Sophie from a crouched position on the floor and stood up slowly, pushing her fists into her soft hips. "Now why don't you just shut your damned mouth, girl." Her words perhaps were intended to keep things light, but her facial expression said otherwise.

Sophie's face dropped and she blushed a little. "I'm just playin', girl."

Her cousin's face retorted with a wordless, "Well that shit ain't funny." And then she said, "I'm sure you girls have money from home. Why don't you go and get yourselves something."

Sophie, like an overweight cat, recovered her bloated dignity quickly. "I could go for some beef patties," she said. "Any place around here that got those?" Beef patties were a Jamaican dish that always looked a lot like dog food in patty form to me, and despite Sophie's rational explanations of what they were, I'd never wanted to try them.

"I dunno, girl, I just had some over at my girl's place, but they all gone," her cousin said, laughing deep in her throat and returning her focus to her little boy, who was now sitting on the floor struggling to pull off his shirt. "Whatchu doin' boo?" She pulled his shirt back down, which made his eyes start to well. His bottom lip pushed out and trembled.

"Hey!" Sophie's cousin shouted sternly at the boy, looking over her nose at him. "My boy don't cry," she said. And his face suddenly straightened, his lip quickly pulling back in, and he sloppily wiped his eyes with the back of his little hands, all the while staring at his mother.

"That's right," she said, pointing her finger at his face.


Eventually, Sophie and I walked to the corner store and got some junk food that looked appealing to our hungry stomachs--chips, Hostess this-or-thats, and sodas. Sophie wanted lemonade because she didn't "like the bubbles in fizzy drinks." We went back and got hopped up on sugar and just as we felt ready to conquer the world, I heard her cousin in the kitchen cursing and generally sounding very distressed. I stayed in the bedroom, sitting on the presumably dirty, strewn sheets of the bed while Sophie went to find out what was wrong.

Apparently, the rain a couple of days before had spawned a pile of maggots out on the balcony in and around the trashcan, and there were so many of them that her cousin, revolted, had vomited in the sink, which she was actively washing away as Sophie entered the kitchen. The boy had been upset by his mother's upset and was now crying, which I could hear as I watched Sophie standing uselessly in the living room watching things unfold. I heard some commotion and saw Sophie's face tighten, and then I heard a muffled growl from Sophie's cousin, followed quickly by the sound of a wallop and the boy shrieking.

"You gonna stop crying, boy!" the boy's mother yelled through gritted teeth. "Ain't never gonna be a man crying like that!"

And he shrieked again, then sobbed. Sophie appealed to her cousin--I guess you could call it intervening--but she was clearly intimidated, which was sadly a bit satisfying for me.

Her cousin cut her off. "How's he ever gonna learn to be a man acting like a little bitch?" she shouted at Sophie, and though I couldn't see her cousin's face, and though I wanted to run over, grab the boy, run out of the apartment, and take his far away forever, I could hear fear in his mother's voice. It was at this moment that I both wanted Sophie to shut her fucking mouth and I wanted to take my bag and leave, because more than anything, I knew that Sophie and (especially) I were intruders that didn't belong there for one second more.

Instead I just stayed frozen on the dirty sheets of the bed, looking over at my bag lying half on its side on the hard white floor, then looked again at the side of Sophie's face, and waited. I hoped her cousin would calm down and hug the boy, say, "I'm sorry. You know Mama's just upset. I didn't mean it," but she didn't. She just kept running the water to wash her puke down the drain in the sink. Then she called a guy, who turned out to be a neighbor, to help her with the maggot situation.

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