I hear you out there. You’re enjoying your night, clinking glasses, knocking forks against plates, and murmuring pleasantries around the table. I wish I could join you. My belly rumbles as the pungent smell of cayenne pepper, lemon and garlic crusted, oven roasted chicken floats up the stairs, down the hall and through the small key hole of the door. I can just taste the thick heap of coagulated sugar sitting at the bottom of the Kool-aid container.
From my perch on the opposite side of the door, I kneel before the hollow wood and close my eyes. I imagine the red ring the sweet liquid leaves as you raise your glasses to your lips and slurp. Tongue stained, teeth bared as ice crunches between them.
I take a deep breath in. Is that apple pie I smell? Or has my imagination, overwrought with the need for belonging, begun to invent things? I inhale deeply.
Definitely apple pie, then.
I sigh as I sit back on my haunches, my damp hands pressing against my thighs. My stomach growls again and I turn my head. “And what do you think we will eat?” I ask.
My brother sits on the floor not too far from me. We don’t use the furniture because that would mean we existed, should we mess things up. He is unbothered, or at least pretending to be, and twiddles his thumbs on his lap.
“Something,” he murmurs so low I wonder if I imagined it. I imagine a lot. I’m not sure why. I make up stories in my head. I tell myself untruths so real that life doesn’t seem so bad. I turn back to the door and I tell myself a story: They’ll come to the door any second. They will unlock the door.
The First Level of Acceptance.
They won’t be holding paper plates in their hands to force us to feed on the floor like animals. No, they’ll have open palms and open hearts. Generosity will shine from their eyes and they will beckon us forward. Inviting us into their lives.
The Second Level of Acceptance.
We will rise, eyes wide with gratitude, bellies growling, also in gratitude. We’ll follow them downstairs where two extra place settings have been polished and two extra plush chairs have been drawn. Everyone at the table will stand to their feet.
Are we equals or royalty? I don’t know, but I feel respected.
The Third Level of acceptance.
I will reach back and grab my brother’s hand. He’s older but I’m mentally stronger, I know, and more determined. When we sit, they sit. They’re watching us, waiting as we pick up our utensils, and we smile apologetically, knowing, in our haste to feed our starving bellies, we’ve forgotten our prayers. They don’t mind and we bow our heads, though we are unable to take our eyes off the glistening food. After prayers, they once again wait for us to begin eating.
The Fourth Level of Acceptance.
We don’t sit in silence. Oh no, the room grows louder with mirth and converse of past indiscretions and future aspirations. We, my brother and I, tell tall tales and ensnare them with our dreams. Dreams that peg us as more than two black kids whose mother didn’t love them, stuck in the foster care system, locked away in closets, while the ‘real kids’ ate at the dinner table. They’ll look back at us in agreement. “Yes, you’ll make it out,” they’ll say. Their eyes showing they truly believe in us.
The Fifth Level of Acceptance.
The story ends there because I’m not sure how the night would go on, not even in my head. I’m never there to see what happens to the family after their meal is over and the forks are crossed.
Are they crossed? Or are they thrown haphazardly atop the chicken’s carcass or the half eaten bowl of overcooked mashed potatoes? Do they disperse to their respective corners? Do the children help clean up the dishes? Is the mother calling out bedtimes and homework reminders?
I don’t know this part because they retreat to a section of the house I cannot hear with my little girl ears, no matter how hard I strain. I lean closer to the door. The clink, clink, clink of utensils bounce off the soft walls of my growling belly. I stay there until my toes go numb from the kneeling position. I want to get up but I’m afraid to miss something, anything.
A deep timber rings out, the father is saying something in a stern voice. Voices grow closer. The stairs creak under lazy feet. Finally, we have been remembered, I think as footsteps pitter patter across the hall to the door.
I scramble back, gangly legs too long for my body propel me across the carpet to the place next to my brother. My place they’ve put me in. The key scrapes in the door and I hold my breath, remembering my story, hopeful. The door swings open on old hinges.
“You better not have been touching nothing,” the woman growls between clenched, red-stained teeth. She sweeps the room with her gaze as if to find something, anything, we’ve stolen, or broken, or to find us as if we’d somehow escaped. We shake our heads. Then the paper plate appears. Just one, for the two of us.
Level of Acceptance: Zero.