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Friday Feature: Octavia Washington



Octavia Washington is an emerging writer who graduated from Carleton College with a degree in English and is currently a Dramaturgy MFA student at Columbia University. She lives in New York and can be found shopping until dropping, probably. Follow Octavia on Instagram and Twitter.



babybreath

 

CHARACTERS

Angel, a black woman in her 20s

The Husband, older than her  

 

Setting: The Bed

Time: None in the Void

 

Angel is lying horizontal on the bed in her pink robe and bonnet, one leg exposed. She keeps rubbing at her temples. Her sheets are undone, unmade, fraying; every second away from her temple goes to its exposed strings. Her husband is sitting in a chair across from her, monitoring for any worrying signs — well, more worrisome than her usual. She’s surrounded by dial-up telephones, receivers as far as the eye can see. Another ring — and no answer. The phones get bigger and smaller all around her; they shrink and balloon, and she follows their lead with her movements.

 

Angel hears a click after each name. No telling if the husband can hear them too.

 

Angel

Kolin. Kerolle. Kerstein. Khafif. Khan. These are the first instruments of the baby machine. I have to take a nap but I can’t stop thinking and I need you to help me carry my thoughts. Okay, can you do that? I need you to carry my names and then we’ll all find some peace in dreams. Okay, can you promise that? Alright. I have - pass me that. (He passes her the crumbled piece of paper on the floor; she unravels it.) These are my physicians but I don’t think they went to school for medicine. I think they’re fake. Don’t look at me like that. Forget the degrees painting the walls and the pillows that devour and the games in the waiting room and the snotty receptionist at the desk and the fancy Ivy Leagues of it all. They majored and degreed in Baby Killer MD. And now I have something to say. I stand and shout (Angel tries to stand up but falls back down), I sit and shout: I have something to say. I have -- what was I -- I’m sorry, I’m not -- oh, Kolin.

 

That was the first stop. All aboard the abortion express. Sorry. That’s not funny, I know you don’t like when I make, when I make light of things like — dark things. I just meant that he was my pediatrician and that’s why I saw him first. Kolin’s hair went like (she gestures) whoosh; he had the quaff, baby, the quaff, okay, it was the 90s. He found me in the waiting room playing with the piano rug, the long one with all the keys, you ever seen those shits? No? Well, I was brushing my foot over c and humming something so loud that I didn’t hear him and he had to tap me twice with his ghost hands because he’s known me since I was small enough to have to put my whole body on c to get it to play.

 

And when I took off my pretty dress from Puerto Rico and sucked my butt into a paper gown, he waved some blurry black photos of my insides and said, do you know what this means, my Angel? And I said, please don’t tell Daddy, because I already had three hot messages from him in my voicemail that I hadn’t listened to but they went something like, I’ll pay for it, blah, just like your mother, blah, hardheaded, blah. And he said we have to tell Daddy. And I said, nuh-uh. And he said, uh-huh. And we went like that back and forth and I guess the stress got to be so much that something in my stomach suckered in, (hold breath) spun, (exhale) and whirled into a vacuum. (Spit)

 

And that’s one down. You can find them at siete-uno-ocho cuatro-tres-cuatro y dos-nueve-nueve-dos. See, I don’t even need the paper. I’m smart. Your baby is smart. I memorize all their names because time freed me. And now I have space for lullaby.

 

Here are the - I - can I talk? Can I talk? Thank you.

 

Angel lies flat on the bed, spreading her arms and legs so that she’s in a snow angel position.

 

Here are the weapons they used to destroy me: Kolin. Kerolle. Kerstein. Khafif. Khan. Khasidy. Kamin. Kamal. Kassof. Kaminski. Kaiser. Joseph. Julien. Jofe. Jack. I remember Joseph best! I remember that bitch. I remember Joseph with the green Jordans. I remember because I went, damn, you got it like that? Not mister uptighty bitey tidey-whitey whitey who won’t make eye contact when he puts his instruments in me got some Jays? I asked about them when he was putting his cold stethoscope on my teta, just because I got his number from this white lady in my building, the one with that badass kid — oh, you know her, Jacqueline! How is she? Oh, yeah, yeah, he didn’t say nothing. He shrugged then parted my knees with the gloves. I was trying to get to know him, you know, because I had never met him, and I like to know people before they look in my hoo-ha and put rubber on my panties because I am a classy lady, alright, I was raised alright. But he didn’t want to be known I guess. I guess in his program they tell him the patient is just a chart and a number and a birthday and a history of smoking and cancer in the family. He didn’t talk to me one bit, except to tell me that he noticed some bleeding when he parted me, and that he was very sorry, but he didn’t hear a heartbeat.

 

You can find him at siete-uno-ocho seis-tres-tres y uno-uno-cuatro-dos. Afterward, I went around to everyone I could find. I grabbed people’s jackets on the train. I yelled on the bus. I yelled so much the bus driver said can someone shut that miss up? But no, no one can stop me when I start hurricaning.

 

I said, do you need a doctor? Preferably better than him? This is where you can find them: Kolin. Kerolle. Kerstein. Khafif. Khan. Khasidy. Kamin. Kamal. Kassof. Kaminski. Kaiser. Joseph. Julien. Jofe. Jordan. Jefferson. James. Jerome. Jayasundera. Jean-Pascal. Jean-Brice. Jean-Noel. Jean-Pierre. Jean-whatever. So many men and they all rot of babybreath. (Getting up) I am thirsty. I want water. Your baby wants water!

 

Husband runs out of the room. We can hear water being poured off-stage. He comes back, helping Angel sip her water.

 

I’m sorry for yelling. I just get upset when I think about Joseph. The way he was looking at me, you know? Like I was procedure, not person. But if he knew me, if he really opened his ears and consumed me, I’d have her. I’d have a baby. We’d - I’m sorry. I know you like me to speak for myself. From now on we’ll say Jo-shush. Can you repeat after me, Jo-shush? You good? Good.

 

Listen, will you listen? (sung mostly to herself) Kolin. Kerolle. Kerstein. Khafif. Khan. Khasidy. Kamin. Kamal. Kassof. Kaminski. Kaiser. Jo-shush. Julien. Jofe. Jordan. Jefferson. James. Jerome. Jayasundera. Jean-Pascal. Jean-Brice. Jean-Noel. Jean-Pierre. Jean-whatever. Issac. Ibsen. Inna. Now this one’s gonna get you mad. Issac. I only know his name because I looked for him in the thing that’s online? Yes, you can -- yes, you can! You can look people up by their inmate number and that’s what I did. After. Not before. I know you don’t like it when I get all feelings first. When -- what was it you said? When I move with my anxiety, not my logic. And this was one of those times where I was holding my anxiety but I was desperate. You’d get desperate too, okay, if every path kept taking you to the grave instead of to heaven.

 

So what had happened was I traveled down the yellow brick road and down a gray alley where there was a woman sitting with her dog in her lap and she was looking at me and I was looking at her because she kinda looked like Tia Flores, a little if I squinted and tilted, just like her with a little more dirt under her nails. And I asked her if she knew which way Gravesend was and she said, why the hell do you wanna go over there, that’s where people get ganged and banged and I said, I’m a hero, I’m saving my new baby, and there’s a man there who will protect her and me from demons and doubters who are forged in the fire of exacting supremacy. Yeah, I see you shaking your head but that’s what I said, okay, I said that shit, because that’s what I thought and I say what I think, always, because I don’t believe in doublespeech like you men of gun, I believe in the truth, the truth is what brings you closer to God, the truth is what keeps the devil at bay, the truth is free. But anyway, I said that and she pointed down to the left, to the left so I followed the yellow brick road and found a gray apartment door on the corner of Avenue D. I knocked. He answered. He had one gold tooth and I thought, man, this really is a private, private, private practice. He said I should leave on my shoes and I immediately got a bad feeling because what type of home doesn’t have you take off your shoes? A bad one, that’s what. He gestured that I should sit in the makeshift living room turned lab turned armchair turned stir-ups and under the flickering lights he put his scalpel on my thigh and said, so you need to get rid of this one? And I said NO. The opposite. He asked me if I was sure. I said YES. He kept shaking his heads and I mean heads because at this point the chlorine -- he had just cleaned before I got there, right -- was getting up in my nose and into my brain. He said I was too pretty and too young to be ruining my life. I didn’t respond because I was getting bothered. The gold, the light, the gray. Instead, I snapped my knees together and stood. And he was like, you still have to pay! And I said MY CURRENCY IS MY FOOT and kicked him in the balls like Tio Rod told me to do when people started looking at me funny. And he screamed YOU BITCH and I ran and ran and ran and I started flying and dropped the latest baby on the way down the street, past the lady, past the trash, past the construction guys who said why you running ma, past the cops who gave me the good ole red and blue and said SLOW DOWN, but then they took pity on me because I was crying so hard that it turned into burps and I looked like the black one’s little sister. Snot and all.

 

(Beat)

 

See, I knew you wouldn’t like that story. But that’s what happened. Deadass, that’s what happened. 

 

Can you call my mom? You don’t have your mother-in-law programmed into your fancy little gadget? It’s siete-uno-ocho tres-ocho-dos y cero-cinco-cero-cero. I know we’re not talking right now but I would really like to listen to her breathe. Can you --? Gimme me. Thank you.

 

Husband hands over his cell phone. As the phone rings, the receivers around her stop breathing — or stop moving so much, whatever’s easier. Angel makes a call. No answer.

 

(To the voicemail)

Hi, Mommy. It’s your Angel. I have a secret: (quiet) Kolin. Kerolle. Kerstein. Khafif. Khan. Khasidy. Kamin. Kamal. Kassof. Kaminski. Kaiser. Jo-shush. Julien. Jofe. Jordan. Jefferson. James. Jerome. Jayasundera. Jean-pascal. Jean-Brice. Jean-Noel. Jean-Pierre. Jean-whatever. Issac. Ibsen. Inna. Irwin. Iwanicki. Ingber. Ingberman. Igor. IIina-Yelena.

 

Wait, stop talking. I hear something.

 

Pause as they look around. Then comes swelling, sweet music. It sounds a little like an aria but of many rhythmic, popping voices. It’s clear to Angel that it’s her babies singing.

 

My parasites came to visit. They sound so good! You can’t hear them? Stop this bullshit: you hear them!

 

Angel gets up and spins herself. A lovely, if clumsy, pivot.

 

They’re getting hungry. They need something to eat. Do you have anything? Give me something! No, not that! Watch me: (Angel does a fast step routine) Kolin. Kerolle. Kerstein. Khafif. Khan. Khasidy. Kamin. Kamal. Kassof. Kaminski. Kaiser. Jo-shush. Julien. Jofe. Jordan. Jefferson. James. Jerome. Jayasundera. Jean-pascal. Jean-Brice. Jean-Noel. Jean-Pierre. Jean-whatever. Issac. Ibsen. Inna. Irwin. Iwanicki. Ingber. Ingberman. Igor. IIina-Yelena. Henry. Hollander. Horne. Hope. Are you full yet?

 

(Abruptly stops dancing)

Maybe she changed her number. She moves around a lot, you know, I was just trying the kitchen phone. Do this one: Siete-uno-ocho siete-cuatro-tres y cero-cuatro-seis-cuatro.

 

No? Nothing?

 

That’s okay. I have one last story for you. Although you were there for this one. So it’s not a story, I guess, for you, it’s a memory. You like Henry. I like Henry. He’s not a whoosh, or a Jay, or a gold tooth. He’s a cackle. Literally. He’s more laugh than person. What! It’s not an insult! He goes (she does his laugh). It’s trustworthy. A man who cackles is not a man who lies. And he’s brown and he’s pink inside and he’s purple on the outside. That’s a person you can trust. You can trust a cackle. It’s not his fault his attendant -- okay, you’re getting upset. I thought the song would cheer you up. No, don’t cry. You don’t see me crying. This one was almost full-term. I should cry. I stink. I smell like babybreath.

 

I was getting a bagel that day when I felt it. This quick suck. Quicksand in my belly. I begged the guy at the bodega to call the Mr, tell him to meet me at Bellevue, okay, tell him I’m going to Bellevue. And I closed my eyes and willed myself down 1st Ave. When I transported to the receptionist desk, I said, I’m hurt. And the attendant was passing by on his lunch, yes, the old white one, and he said, no, he whispered because I wasn’t supposed to hear, he whispered, can it hold for my cholecystectomy? And the nurse nodded and then put her needle nails in my arm and said hurt how? But she wasn’t looking at me, you know, her eyes were around and about. And I said I’m hurting now, right now, it’s hurting, because that’s the only way to get them to take you seriously. She said sit down, the doctor will be with you soon, and I said, I need Dr. Henry now! Give him to me, give me to him, whatever, but it needs to happen now, right fucking now or I’m gonna explode, there’s a bomb in my chest. And she said, ma’am, that’s a serious accusation, if that’s true we will need to call the police and I said, call the fucking police call the governor call the SWAT team call the FBI call motherfucking Batman you dumb bitch if you don’t get me Kolin Kerolle Kerstein Khafif Khan Khasidy Kamin Kamal Kassof Kaminski Kaiser Jo-shush Julien Jofe Jordan Jefferson James Jerome Jayasundera Jean-pascal Jean-Brice Jean-Noel Jean-Pierre Jean-whatever Issac Isben Inna Irwin Iwanicki Ingber Ingberman Igor IIina-Yelena Henry Hollander Horne Hope Hassan Hausknecht Halper Handler George Gary or Goldstein I will kill you. And then you arrived, wrenching yourself out of a cab. And when I saw you I knew. My insides broke in the lobby and I just knew. It wasn’t Henry’s fault. It’s not your fault.

 

That’s why I’m telling you right now that I’m not seeing another doctor. Not even if it’s a woman. Not even if it’s light itself. I’m not leaving my bed. You can call them right now. Go ahead. I don’t care if it’s Fred or Fong or Feurman or Flores or Fuchs or Friedman or Ferzli or Fazio or Feldman or Fairwa or Frenkel or Francois or Epstein or Erber or Empire. And when you call Siete-uno-ocho seis-tres-tres y ocho-uno-ocho-tres, tell them my wife and my kids said, I banish you!

 

No one believes me. No one ever believes me. No, you don’t. No, YOU DON’T! I don’t like to be told who I am and what I am and what compels me and what magic makes me! I’m not a liar! I had all those babies and they ate each other up in my womb and they ate me up, and now I’m not going outside anymore. I’m going to lay here for the next forty-eight hours, or days, or months, or years. No, I want to get up. No, I want to sit. Fuck you! I don’t know!

 

Angel stands but she bumps into too many things. She trips over one of the phones and ends up on the ground. She vomits into the waste bin. Not real vomit, of course. She’s puking out all of the names; it’s a strange, glittery occurrence. Her husband stands behind her and holds her head. When she’s done he smoothes her edges and holds her.

 

Sorry for yelling. I believe in the sun, you know? I salute the sun. I cast a hex on all those naughty men. I reach into the void and pull out a wand and I curse them for financial ruin, for emotional instability, for a toilet that never flushes, for a washer that always stains, for a drain that always clogs, for shoelaces inevitably untied, for sickness do we part, for hell and beyond.

 

Thank you for understanding. Sorry for yelling. And these are the names of all my babies: Daisy, Dagney, Daphne, Diana, Dorothy, Destiny, Desi, Dali, Dayo. Chantel, Charmaine, Candy, Catherine, Catalina, Carolina, Caprice, Camila, Cristina. Bella, Belcalse, Bethany, Bianca, Blanca, Brianna, Belinda, Brandy, Birdie. And I’m their only angel.

 

Angel sighs then stops talking. The Husband shakes her but she doesn’t stir. It seems she’s fallen asleep in his arms.


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