canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Yu Gwine Live Inna Stoosh Place

by Carole Langille

After the police broke the news, I called my sister. I heard Susanna ask, "Who is this?" but I couldn't talk, I was crying too hard. When I finally spoke, my anguish was so apparent she said, "I'm coming over." It was nearly four, not yet the next day, not quite the night before. It would take her almost two hours to get from Long Island to Washington Heights, but all I said was, "Hurry."

The sun rose, scouring the dirty streets as I looked out the window. I pictured her bolting from her car to my apartment, passing the sleeping bodies on flattened cardboard boxes outside gated stores. "Little Calcutta" was what she called this neighborhood and when I pointed out that no East Indians lived here she said, "I mean you live in a third world slum." At least the prostitutes and pushers would have gone home by now.

When she finally arrived I was in the bathroom making pacts with the gods: "Let this be a nightmare, let me wake up!" I heard the officer with the kind face and Spanish accent greet my sister. He explained that my husband had been found dead on the street a few hours earlier. "Some thugs, probably in a robbery attempt, stabbed him." I splashed water over my face as I listened. Clearly the officer was upset to have to relay this news. He and his partner hadn't wanted to leave me alone in my condition. By "my condition," did he mean in shock or eight months pregnant? For a moment I couldn't bring myself to walk into the living room.

When I finally did, Susanna grabbed me so hard she squeezed the breath out of me. We stood there holding each other, tears running down our faces. I remember Susanna pouring herself day old coffee and asking if I wanted some. I shook my head; Marcus didn't like me drinking coffee. Then I started laughing. Marcus had no thoughts about coffee anymore! Then I was laughing and crying at the same time.

When Marcus first learned I was pregnant, he'd been barely able to contain his joy, pleasure ambushing him throughout the day. He became protective, buttoning my jacket as if I were a little girl when we went walking and it got cold. He usually reserved such concern for his patients.

He'd only been a resident for a few weeks at the hospital where I worked, when I noticed him, a man not much taller than I, with eyes the colour of whiskey. When I walked up to him in the cafeteria and asked if the seat opposite were free, I already knew his name and where he was from. He was shy but not so shy as not to guess what I was thinking when my eyes rested on his. Later he told me he admired my boldness.

Almost immediately I felt so close to him I could no longer see him clearly, though his beauty was always there, a wild spark. The first time he spent the night in my apartment, he sang me a hymn he'd learned in Jamaica. I sang him two of my favourite songs - Many Rivers to Cross, and Be Thou My Vision. "Singing comforts me," I said. "Those were perfect, one after the other," he told me later, "from different worlds, yet wedded."

When we decided to marry, he worried his mother would not approve of this white woman. I worried he would not have enough time for me. My fears turned out to be more substantial.

"He's always working," I grumbled to Susanna a few months after the wedding. I admired his commitment, yet the very things I admired, I complained about. "He went to Nigeria last year to work with Doctors Without Borders and now he wants to go again. I don't think he should."

"He only goes for a few weeks, doesn't he?" Susanna had pointed out. "What did he do last time he was there?"

"Surgery," I told her. When young women had no help delivering their babies, they'd come back from the bush torn, unable to stop the urine or feces from running down their legs. Then they'd be abandoned, forced to leave town. 'These are the woman most to be pitied in the world,' he'd told me. There were thousands of them. The repair procedure wasn't complicated, but there were no doctors to perform it.

Now my complaints seemed ludicrous. How much would I give to see Marcus, even briefly, as he packed for one of his trips.

"We should let Mom know about Marcus" Susanna said gently. "Do you want me to call?"

"Not yet," I said. "She's probably sleeping." Susanna was looking at me with such compassion, I could hardly stand it. "Does Mom know you may be moving back to the city?" I asked, as if changing the subject could halt the nightmare.

Susanna looked surprised. "I'm not moving back so quickly," she said. Only a few weeks ago, when Susanna had come to visit, she'd been distraught. "Things aren't working with Jo," she'd said. From the start, I'd been against her moving to Long Island to live with someone she'd just met. She'd bought a car, as well.

"Owning a car in Manhattan is less of a problem than owning an elephant, but not much less," I'd warned her. I could understand why Jo liked my sister. Susanna was generous and smart. And a beauty. But what did Susanna see in Jo? I asked her once.

"Jo asked me that as well," Susanna had said. " I love her crooked smile, her grey eyes, the way she makes me laugh. But how can you explain why you love someone?"

From the start, Susanna had been careful to let our mother know that Jo had been married, that Jo's ex still came by to help with repairs. We both agreed that our mother had to be protected from reality. She had been less concerned about Susanna moving in with Jo than she had been about the location of my apartment.

I'd explained to my mother that we were only planning to stay one more year, that the apartment was close to the hospital where we worked.

"So what if it's close?" my mother had scoffed. "I don't know how you of all people, who always wanted to feel safe, could live in a place like this."

Every time my mother visited, she grimaced. She was like a jack-o-latern, hollowed out but for a light magnifying her frown. Ironically, neither my mother nor Susanna worried about Marcus walking those streets, as if a man of colour were exempt from attack.

"Yu gwine live inna stoosh place. Yu upful. Truss me," his granny had told Marcus when he was little.

"And we do live in a stoosh place," Marcus said to me shortly after we married. "We have everything we need."

When I first moved into the apartment, I practiced being very still and listening to any voice, real or imagined, that was speaking to me. Marcus taught me this.

In Jamaica, where Marcus grew up, God dispatched signs through angels, his granny had told him. Though nearly blind, she'd pointed out red and green parrots she could detect by their sound. His mother had sent back money from that promised land "Brooklyn," but it was his granny who had raised him and it was she who urged him to pay attention to signs. Marcus was born under a lucky star whose light was so strong, it would never fail him, she said. It was no surprise to her when Marcus got a full scholarship to a private school on the island when he was twelve. A few months after he'd started going to the fancy school, he'd invited five boys to come to his home after sundown. He wanted to show them the stars and explain how the constellations got their names. He'd just read about Greek mythology in a library book. As a treat, granny made Blue Draws to give the boys, mashed bananas, coconut, sweet potatoes, sugar, wrapped in banana leaves, tied with string and boiled. "Mi a go a door," Granny said when she finished cooking. They waited, she in her rocker, Marcus on the ground leaning against the shack, sure the boys would come. They waited until it was nearly midnight. "Wa mek dem bwoys galaan so?" she sighed at last. Then they ate the draws themselves.

"I swaggered to school next day as if nothing were wrong," Marcus told me. "I never mentioned what happened. But that was the last time I invited anyone from the school to my home." His granny taught him that if his luck were bad, he just had to be patient. When he got a scholarship to a university in big bright America, he was ready to go. He worked hard to pay back the debt to his grandmother and mother. The incessant hours residency demanded were fine with him.

"You know, at the end of granny's life, what she remembered, what she wanted to talk about was the life that she had when I was little and she took care of me. 'Mi lub yu kyaan done,'" Marcus had said, imitating her sing-song voice, then translating her words - My love for you never ends. Many grandchildren lived near her, but Marcus, who left when he was seventeen, was the one she longed for. "You never get over your losses," Marcus said. "You never know why the tree misses you," was another phrase of his. He told me the story behind it.

In Jamaica, rivers run brown. Rain washes soil from treeless hills. The pine the government planted snaps like sticks in a hurricane. Marcus had been ten and fishing alone when he heard crashing behind him. He was too terrified to turn, thinking he would come face to face with a wild boar. When he did look, he saw that a huge mahogany had toppled over. He'd been this close to being crushed.

I loved when Marcus told his stories. Did Jo tell Susanna about her early life? When they'd started living together, I wondered what two women actually did in bed together. Then I thought, except for intercourse, they probably do what Marcus and I do. It's not all that different.

"It is different," Susanna told me later in one of our open talks. "It's better."

Once I found out I was pregnant, I became more accepting of Susanna and Jo. Everything seemed like a blessing then. When we were home together and I got hungry, Marcus would stop what he was doing and fix me eggs or a sandwich. Every once in a while he'd speak a few words in Jamaican patois, something he'd never done when we first met. "Baby madda," he'd croon, as he wrapped a towel around me when I came out of the bath. One night after making love, we lay together sleepy and happy and he taught me some expressions I'd never heard before. To bow - to go down on a woman. Mi like fi bowcat (I like to go down on you), glamity (a woman's privates), champion, grindsman, words describing an expert in bed. Jamaicans had many words for such experts. "I can see why," I teased him.

Then everything went to hell when I was in my fourth month and started bleeding. Marcus rushed me to the clinic where a doctor sewed up my cervix and ordered complete bed rest. At first, I couldn't imagine staying in bed month after month. I was too miserable even to listen to music. But gradually I got used to things.

When my mother came to visit, unhappy with the music I played, the choice of food in the refrigerator, with Marcus, she made it no secret that his island culture was too alien for her. But Marcus was like my own private island. With him in my life, no one, not even my mother, could get to me.

Susanna brought me books about exotic places. I liked reading about kayaking in shark-infested water, or drinking hallucinogenic liquors with tribesman, or walking paths in the pitch black that bordered cliffs. Not that I wanted to do these things, but these were stories about travelers who survived. When I read, I was aware that even the most mundane place had mystery. The pigeon that tapped on my window as if it wanted to be let in, wasn't this a message too?

When I wasn't reading, I took photographs of various angles of the room. Later, when I was able to get out of bed, I sat by the window and snapped scenes of the street below. Though I did not move from the apartment, I felt like an explorer, wild even, capturing and recording something fleeting. When my camera jammed, Marcus took it to the repair shop, and for a while I had to make do with thinking about photos rather than taking them. Susanna came by with her photographer friend Clarke so he could give me some pointers. I admired his narrow eyes and boyish grin.

"He's gorgeous," I told Susanna, after he'd gone. "You knew him from university?"

"We were just friends," Susanna said, amused.

"Why, is he gay?" I asked.

"I'm gay," Susanna said. "Remember?" I would have liked to capture the expression she had on her face at that moment.

I thought I'd have a lifetime to take photos, show them to Marcus. I thought I'd have an eternity to do something remarkable and dazzle him. And now I wouldn't even get to hear him sing one more song. How was that possible? I stared into the dark, oily coffee, as if I could see my reflection there. As if its darkness were seeping into me. With my bare foot I rubbed one of the worn linoleum tiles I'd been hoping the landlord would replace. It was torn at the edge and stained, the pattern faded. Like me, I thought. If I had the faintest idea that I knew pain before, I was wrong. Nothing in my life had prepared me.

I could not bear to imagine Marcus on the poorly-lit street surrounded by assailants. How many had there been, two, three? Had they seen what he was carrying? Surely he would have given them anything they wanted. But maybe not. And this thought tortured me. Maybe he felt pride in his meagre possessions and could not bear to see them taken so easily. Had he seen the knife glimmer in his attacker's hand?

The room was quiet as I rubbed my fingers on the scarred wooden table. I hadn't told anyone about the details of Marcus's death. When I looked up at Susanna the words came rushing out. "He was coming home in the middle of the night because I asked him to. I knew he'd picked up the camera and I was restless and wanted to take photos. Can you believe how selfish I was? If he'd waited until morning, instead of coming on his break, he'd still be alive."

Susanna was still for a moment. Then she moved closer. As if my pregnancy were still risky, she reached over and touched me so carefully, staring at my towering belly, and began to rub my shoulder. "Oh Lainie, " she said. But I slid away. It was as if a fissure had parted the earth, leaving me on the opposite side of the world from everyone else. Unless I could get across, I might as well die too. How had I gotten here?

"Oh husband," I whispered. Mi lub yu kyaan done. I closed my eyes. "I once asked Marcus what he loved about me," I said to Susannah. "He said,'There's nothing about you I don't love, woman.'" I could barely finish the sentence before I started crying again. I thought, "I'll never stop crying." Then I thought, "Would it be so terrible if I went to the balcony and jumped off?"


"Should I put streamers on the balcony railing?" Susanna asked. I had moved to an apartment downtown and though I now lived on the second floor, not the fifteenth, I said no, I didn't want children playing on the terrace. We were getting ready for my six-year-old son's birthday party. More than I ever thought possible, everything seemed precious and hazardous and astonishing.

Susanna and I hung blue and white crepe paper from the ceiling and wrapped dinky cars for grab-bag prizes. She'd brought a cake Jo had baked in the shape of a dinosaur and we'd decorated it with green icing and Smarties. The promises that life had once seemed to offer and then withdrawn, that I'd trusted and then thought had mocked me, no longer mocked me.

When Susanna and I had sat in my kitchen that dreadful night, my hands circling my huge belly, I'd thought," I'll always be fearful." I envisioned moving in with my mother. And then a thought came to me with such force, I believe it was sent by one of the angels Marcus told me about, and I took it as a sign that all the light in my life had not been extinguished. It occurred to me that the baby wouldn't be afraid. The baby would be like Marcus. And the mother of a kid like that would have to be strong too.

I remember Susanna saying, "Jo and I will babysit."

"You're that sure you and Jo will patch things up?" I had only been half listening. I was thinking, I've only known Marcus two years but a history has been compressed in that time and it will have to be rich enough and detailed enough to nourish me and this baby a lifetime.

"Yes," Susanna had said, "We will. The baby will love her gay aunties."

"You think I'll have a daughter?" I'd asked. I was paying attention now.

"Your son will love us too," she'd said, smiling at me with such sad love.

Carole Langille's second book of poetry, In Cannon Cave was nominated for The Governor General's Award and The Atlantic Poetry Prize. Six poems from her third book, Late in a Slow Time were put to music by the composer Chan Ka Nin and aired on CBC Radio. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.






TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.