Trigger Warning: The story contains strong language, a scene of domestic violence, mentions of drug addiction, teenage marijuana abuse, and brief mentions of mental illness and self-mutilation.
In the early fall of 2002, Alimah and her sister Fanaye spent a month in Long Island with their Aunt Lelisa, Uncle John, and step-cousin Ethan. Their aunt stayed in Hempstead, a painful fifty-minute commute to the girls’ school in Brooklyn. However, that temporary inconvenience wasn’t as painful as them knowing they had to live there because their parents were in rehab in The Hamptons.
“It’s a good thing,” Aunt Lelisa told them when they broke down on their first day at their aunt’s. “Be proud of your parents for taking this big step. They’re doing this for you.”
“Dad’s only doing it so he won’t go to jail,” Fanaye scoffed, wiping tears from her nose.
“That’s not true,” Alimah shouted.
“Would you quit taking up for him?”
“Wait…” Aunt Lelisa’s eyes widened. “I didn’t hear anything about him going to jail! Fanaye, what are you talking about?”
Aunt Lelisa hoped that her older brother didn’t do anything to bring more shame to the family. Their Ethiopian relatives already treated her and her brother like outcasts for marrying people outside of their culture. And even Amir didn’t like that his sister married a widowed White man and became a stepmom to his half-Japanese son.
Fanaye didn’t have it in her to Aunt Lelisa that her father beat her mother after discovering her adulterous voicemails. The coke in his bloodstream made the punches more intense, leaving the face of a woman who once graced the pages of high-fashion magazines, bruised and busted. Then, he rounded up his battered wife and daughters, drove to the hospital, and carried his wife into ER with tears streaming down his sweaty face. Alimah watched her father beg his wife for forgiveness in front of the ER nurses and police that had come in to ask questions. As their mother lowered her bloody face, she whimpered, “I cheated on him…” feeling at that moment that she deserved it. He was escorted to another part of the ER to get drug tested and returned moments later. The results showed the amount of coke in his system, and the nurses and doctors kept their eyes on him the whole night. Alimah wanted to tear up the ER room after watching her mother surrender to her father’s madness. That night, she hated her father, whom she always idolized, for beating a woman so severely despite her wrongdoing. However, she was somewhat relieved when she overheard her mother whisper to her father, “Amir, You and I are going to rehab after this. If you don’t go with me, I’m pressing charges against you, divorce you, and fuck up your life.”
“Okay, fine Eugenia,” he uttered before storming out of the ER room.
Music kept Alimah together. She tried not to think about that horrific night with her parents whenever she practiced much in Ethan’s makeshift basement studio. Ethan played the drums and acoustic guitar as a hobby, so she was in good company when they wanted to make noise after completing homework. Sometimes, Fanaye joined them on the keyboard, learning how to play rock music even though she was used to performing pop and R&B. But, she also dedicated her creative energy to learning the fashion business from Aunt Lelisa, who worked as a fashion merchandiser for Nordstrom.
School had become secondary to Alimah, and she wasn’t too thrilled about it much after getting kicked out of the school band for fighting. A therapist and anti-depressants kept Alimah from punching another classmate in the face or slicing another cut into her arm with a razor blade. But she hated how the medication cramped her creativity and made her jittery. Ethan, who was seventeen—the same age as Fanaye—was on his share of meds for ADHD, which he inconsistently took. At least, Alimah had him to understand why she avoided taking hers some days.
Desta had visited Hempstead twice that month to pick Alimah up and take her to Brooklyn to record some rock music for her demo and be a session player for Psychokunt. After being impressed by Alimah’s guitar skills, Celia invited her to be a session guitarist for one of their recordings. After Desta encouraged Alimah to record a demo, Celia and her drummer, Daisha, offered to help her. The first recording session was at a studio in Williamsburg, where one had to walk through an alley to get to the entranceway. Alimah shuddered as she treaded through dead grass, crushed beer cans, and wayward litter mixed with smashed street food and dead rat carcasses.
“Something is making me itch!” Alimah cried, tightening her grip on her guitar case handle.
“Quit whining, princess,” Desta grumbled. Her boyfriend, Brian, chuckled as he ran his fingers back through his blonde curly bedhead.
“Kiss my ass.”
Alimah’s calmed down once she stepped into the small building and was greeted by a poster of Freddie Mercury hanging on the foyer wall. She smiled at the capture of Freddie on stage, dramatically bending his torso back as he belted through his mic. She could feel the passion from that blown-up photograph, imagining herself in front of thousands doing the same. More posters of various rock stars were plastered on the wooden walls between record plaques and photos of the owner with rock musicians. There were posters of some of Alimah’s biggest influences—Nine Inch Nails (or NIN), Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Alanis Morissette, The Cure, and even Lenny Kravitz. Greg, the studio owner, escorted the three into the control room where Celia, her manager, and her band waited. Before the session started, Alimah had freed her electric guitar from its case and taken her notebook of lyrics out of her backpack. While flipping through pages, nerve-wracking what-if’s raced through her mind. She kept quiet but with confidence, which she learned to do from her early childhood days of performing. No one has ever watched her perform one of her original rock songs, let alone record it.
“Okay, ladies,” Greg gave the cue for the musicians, “Ready?”
Alimah ignored Desta and Greg’s stares through the glass that separated the live room from the control room. She brushed away silly anxieties that threatened her concentration and memory of the lyrics she penned. Daisha tapped her drumsticks in 4/4 rhythm before kicking the beat off. Alimah came in shredding sweeping arpeggios in a dramatic pattern of major chords before the other guitarists joined in. She began her lyrical tale with raspy and sultry but textured vocals:
I hate it here,
But the hell in your eyes makes it difficult to go.
There’s so much fear,
That if I leave, then the world outside will take my soul.
Sometimes Alimah’s lyrics were try-hard imitations of the rock artists she admired. Other times, they carried much potential to crossover every generation of music listeners. After Alimah finished the third song for her demo, everyone hooted and passed around high-fives.
“Somebody needs to hurry the hell up and sign this kid!” Greg exclaimed.
Alimah caught the awestruck stare from Celia’s manager. Before she headed out the door, he handed her his business card with a curt, “Let’s keep in touch, sweetheart.” She gave him a quick nod and then rushed out feeling flattered by his interest but uncomfortable by his term of endearment. Once she got into the backseat of Brian’s car, Alimah showed Desta the business card.
“You’re kidding?” Desta gasped. “This is huge! He’s been in the business for years.”
“Yeah, he used to manage some legendary bands in the ’70s and ’80s.” Brian cranked up the heat in his car, which caused the motor to shake beneath the hood of his 1985 Volkswagen Quantum. He pulled a joint out of his glove compartment, lit it, and toked it twice, then passed it to Desta before putting the car in drive. After Desta took a puff, she turned and held it out to Alimah.
“You wanna try?”
Alimah frowned at the twisted white stick between her sister’s fingers.
“I’m not a drug addict.”
“Neither am I. It’s not addictive.”
Severe curiosity was a chronic disease that Alimah was born with. No matter her moral stance, she always felt the urge to try something at least once, as long as she or anyone else wouldn’t get hurt or killed. Sometimes, the dark side of human nature intrigued her, and it fueled much of her creativity.
“Fine! More for me.” Desta turned away and took a puff of the joint.
“Desta?” Alimah uttered.
Desta looked back at her, waiting for her response. Then, Alimah held her hand out for the joint. Desta handed it to her, then watched her stick it between her lips.
“Inhale…” Desta instructed her.
Alimah inhaled too much and nearly fell over, coughing, dropping the joint.
“Shit!” Desta nearly dived out of her seat to grab it before Alimah picked it back up.
“Let me try again!”
“You can’t inhale too hard!”
“Shuddup! I’ll do it right this time.”
Alimah toked a second time, listening to Brian root her on while watching her through the rearview mirror. The second time was better than the first. Alimah slumped back in her seat, feeling less antsy than she did minutes before. By the time the kids got back to Hempstead, the joint had burned down to a nub. Fortunately for Alimah, no one was home except for Ethan and Fanaye, who were distracted by a Super Mario video game. So, she crept to the bedroom and slept off her high.
Alimah was invited a second time to the studio to do rhythm guitar for one of Psychokunt’s songs. That time, Psychokunt’s manager tried to persuade her to consider his management. “Psychokunt would like to work more with you,” he said, “and I would, too.”
“Thanks,” Alimah said, “but unfortunately, my dad won’t let me a sign or anything until I finish high school.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Give me your dad’s number, and I’ll see you after you graduate high school.”
After that session, Alimah got her second chance to enjoy more of Brian’s weed stash at Celia’s Williamsburg loft. During that time, she made sure to wear sunglasses back to her aunt’s house and then throw her ganja-smelling clothes in the washing machine. She didn’t want her last week with her aunt to end in chaos, with her parents returning from rehab to find that their habits had rubbed off on their daughter.
Back at home in Brooklyn the following month, Alimah’s depression began to slither back, ready to bite again. She had trouble adjusting to the new normal. Her father continued to be away most weeks, but Aunt Lelisa would come to check on her and her sisters every weekend. Alimah’s mother had quit her job as a fashion photographer. Instead, she embarked on a more spiritual path and befriended two Haitian Vodou priestesses at a botánica in Brooklyn. Their father didn’t know she was learning things from these women and coming home with flowers, jars of herbs, candles, framed paintings of saints, and black-faced dolls in blue dresses. These peculiar items sparked memories of Alimah watching her grandmother use yellowish powder to draw strange curlicue designs on the ground in the shed of her Baton Rouge home.
Alimah’s mother had set up a small table in her walk-in closet, covered with red cloth. In the center of the table was a painting of the Black Madonna and Child set in a gold frame. The picture was flanked by candles, flowers, dolls with shiny black skin, and bottles of Florida water. Every Tuesday, her mother kneeled in front of the altar, eyes closed and arms resting in her lap. Alimah had become familiar with the times and days her mother did these prayer rituals, the same way her mother had taught her.
Alimah had remembered her mother speak of prayer rituals consisting of a white candle, a glass dish of water, and the Bible. She knew how gifted her grandmother was and how she passed that gift down to her mother, who would try and pass it on to her and her sisters. Then, one autumn night, her mother decided to teach her how to make a simple prayer to the loa, or ancestors. Alimah was shocked that her mother wanted to bond with her.
“Make sure you don’t pray for selfish gain or evil,” her mother said. “If you’re praying for yourself, make sure that it’s practical and something that you need to help you.” That was not much help to Alimah, who desired to be what she saw on that Freddie Mercury poster.
Her mother started the ritual off with “Our Father”, three “Hail Mary’s” and the “Apostles’ Creed”, guiding Alimah through each line. Then, she demonstrated the correct ways to pour the water dish—in a cross sign in front of the candle—and called upon Papa Legba to open the gates. Alimah watched the flame dance, dim, and then grow brighter against the darkness as her mother made her request to Papa Legba so that she could pray to her ancestors. As Alimah closed her eyes in prayer, she heard the soft sounds of an enormous crowd chanting her name against guitar chords building up to an explosive takeoff. The noises shut off in her head once she finished. Then, she exchanged a deep look with her mother, feeling the warmness she rarely got from her.
“Did you remember to thank your ancestors?”
“Whatever it is that you prayed for, I have faith that it’s going to happen sooner than you think.”