It was a breezy day in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, and I shifted in my seat nervously, my legs bouncing restlessly for the entirety of our conversation. We sat together on my uncle’s red veranda. Green rolled out beneath us from every angle and the farm went on for miles from here. I loved her. I was 16. Nothing made sense, but she did, and I loved her recklessly. I still do. There was always that little bit of hope that we’d grow up, grow apart and then come back and grow together. The hopeless romantic in me wanted to sit across from her and walk willingly into what I thought the tsunami of feelings would be when we finally faced each other again.
“Do you remember what I use to tell you my biggest fear was?”
Sabrina was 19 now, and there was no tsunami as I stared down at her hand rubbing circles around her growing belly. She peered over at me curiously through glossy hazel eyes. Her stare was heavy, her bright eyes dimmed by the kind of tiredness that one can’t cover up with makeup. The feelings were more of a dull vibration, a fading whisper fueled by the fickle promises of adolescents. I looked down at the beat up marble notebook in my hand, the list of questions I didn’t ask, and closed it. Sabrina had light brown skin and loose short curls. She was the kind of girl that looked tall in pictures because she was slim and had long legs, but in person, she was actually very short.
“Thank you for your time, Sabrina.” I reached over to press to stop on the voice recording app in my phone.
“No. You - on that paper, it said that what happened to me…. it happens to a whole lotta kids here then?”
“What about you?” She stared down at the paper in her hand, the stories of countless children shredded down into a list of words and numbers that almost blurred together.
I frowned. “It’s not the same for me.”
She looked over at me, then back down at her belly and laughed.
“That’s fucked up.”
The story of Sabrina’s life, a reflection of mine, as a queer black woman is marred by the circumstances into which she was born. According to Jamaica’s Office of the Children's Registry, in 2015, the country had more than 13,000 reported incidents of sexual abuse against a minor. However, Unicef states that only 1 in 10 instances of this type is actually reported, so the figure published by OCR does not accurately represent the reality of the situation. And of all the incidents recorded, ¾ of the victims are girls. Sabrina’s experience is not an anomaly. It’s one experienced by many, hidden away more often than not, and passed down through generations.
I looked down at the beat-up notebook in my hands once again, running my hands across her name sharpied in thick black letters across the front. Who would anyone be without their trauma? Every summer, for as long as I could remember, I would go down to Jamaica to visit family. Jamaica was my vacation. I came in and out of the country and Sabrina’s life as often as I deemed necessary. Now, I looked over at the young woman and into her tired eyes, remembering all the times we’d fall asleep tangled up in each other, giggling into the air between us. I’d always fallen asleep first. Sabrina would stay up after me, for hours sometimes, because sleep would never come easily. This was her life.
When she was younger, she believed that God had dropped the church straight from the sky. It was off-yellow after years of wear and almost three times her age. It sat in the middle of the wild cane fields and she had to walk through its tall, bushy stocks every Sunday. This humid morning was one of those days; she sat in the second pew on the end toward the aisle, as always. Her little sister Nia was in her lap, kicking her legs in a lavender church dress. The young girl traced her palms, and like her, was completely uninterested in the man speaking. The pastor’s voice knocked gently on the corners of her mind, like a door had closed over his words. Soon enough, the smell of liquor and stale cigarettes engulfed her, startling her from the daze as her mother leaned over. “Sabrina.” It sounded more like “Thabrina,” her mother’s lisp mangling her name. It was a little quirk that often accompanied her mother’s drunkenness, and she heard it more often than not these days. “You take your sister and say hi to Pastor Will before y’all go….your brother is waiting for me outside”.
Her heart dropped as the words registered. Fuck. The woman hobbled away, swaying like a pendulum through the crowded church as the service came to a close. Her eyes shot from her mother to the young pastor in his checkered grey suit, who stood laughing with congregants that approached him. He was a beautiful man. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
She waited until the very last moment possible to slither up to him, her sister’s hand gripped firmly in her own sweaty palm. Her heart beat wildly as she tried to approach him inconspicuously enough to leave room for a hasty escape if needed. Unfortunately, the pastor saw her first. “Sabrina!’
She breathed deeply, her face cracking into a smile that was too wide. “Pastor...hi.”
“I saw you in your favorite seat. You look beautiful in your dress.” He ducked his head a bit in an attempt to meet her eyes, which stared deliberately at his blue bow tie.
“Thank you, Pastor.”
“Soooooo,” he grinned at her, “Summer is right around the corner. Please consider coming back to Bible Study; I miss you.” There was a secret in it, one only she knew. “It was fun.”
She swallowed, her throat straining against the words caught within it.
“You know Miss Anne, the woman who moved to the farms?”
She nodded. Everyone in the small town knew about Miss Anne. “Yea, she has a daughter….an American...Stephanie, I think. Anyway, she's your age.” He shrugged, “I think you’d make a great tour guide, Sabs. Bring her along to Bible if you come!”
She watched as his jaw clenched at her tone, her thread of courage.
“And plus!” That grin again, the one she wished she could unsee, all teeth and no warmth. “You can’t leave poor Nia here alone all summer; we’d miss you.” He crouched down, poking Nia in her stomach and winking, and she did all she could to fight the wave of nausea that washed over her at the sound of her little sister’s giggles. She never felt a winter in her life, but she suspected that this chill creeping up her spine was as close as she’d get.
Her name is Stephanie and she’s the most beautiful girl I’ve seen in my entire life.
I don’t know what Stephanie sees in him. Junior is my twin and I love him but that doesn’t mean I have to like him. He’s nothing but trouble. All he does is drink, smoke weed, and hang out with those thugs. He is one of those thugs! Then he’ll turn around and act all goody-goody for her and Miss Anne. It’s annoying. She deserves better.
She deserves someone as beautiful as her, inside and out.
She turned 15 today. She woke up feeling younger, her fingers cracked as she slowly opened them around the small cell phone that had been clasped firmly in her hand all night. Her father was going to call her today. He wasn’t a man who calls twice, and she’d rather die than miss his voice. So the phone stayed by her side the entirety of the day. When she walked Nia to Bible study, her sister held one hand and the phone occupied the other. When Junior came and dragged her out of treehouse in the guango tree that she often lost hours to and out to lunch, the white cellphone sat right between them.
He stared down at it, “He won’t call.”
She quickly leveled him with a glare; he ruined everything. “Correction - he won’t call you, you’re always so mean to him.”
“Cause he’s like white people chicken, Sabrina, hard to swallow, dry, unseasoned, bitter, and better in the trash.”
“Junior!” Her fists clenched, shaking as they strained. She’d punch him if it wasn’t his birthday, too.
“You need to grow up.”
“We are the same age, you idiot.”
“Exactly, but you’re so sheltered.” He shrugged, “Grow up.”
“You still have mom take the bones out of your fish...” The food arrived, interrupting his rebuttal.
“....Happy Birthday, Sabrina.”
“Happy Birthday Junior.”
The chicken wasn’t dry.
Soon enough, she was back in that treehouse. Her father had built it before he left to Canada, before he morphed into a checkbook. She held the Bible in one hand and the phone in the other. It was a couple minutes to 12, and she didn’t feel young anymore. The phone in her hand felt heavy enough to break the branches that held the small house up. It was there that she found Jonah 4:9. Too many people seemed uncomfortable with being angry at God. He can’t be all-knowing, all-powerful, and remain benevolent. If He was, she would still be able to hear His voice after all he ’s put her through. She couldn’t hear a thing.
She unclasped her hand and stared down at the marks that the phone’s ridges embedded in her palms, wondering if it’d remain that way forever. She threw the phone out into the bushes and replaced it with a bottle of rum. And she drank, drank enough to wonder if the small figure riding the bicycle up the hill towards her was real or not.
It was. She was.
Stephanie climbed into the small place built for toddlers and huddled next to her. Sabrina watched her hair; it bounced as she took in her surroundings. She made a show of not commenting on the liquor sitting between them nor on the scent of it on her breath. Stephanie smelled like expensive perfume and grass.
“I wanted to come wish you a happy birthday.” She finally found her eyes, and Sabrina’s heart crawled up into her throat and made a home. “Sorry I didn’t come earlier. I was visiting my Grandma in Kingston.” Sabrina simply shrugged, unable to respond, and Stephanie frowned at her silence, “I am sorry.”
“Do you wanna know my biggest fear?” Sabrina was slurring and desperately trying not to.
“Being a drunk….like my mother.”
Silence followed as Stephanie simply stared at her.
“...I bought you this. I can’t bake so I made Uncle James stop by the supermarket on our way back.” Stephanie shoved the plastic bag toward Sabrina and watched her, waiting for a sign of life from the other girl. Sabrina stared down at the bag in lap, practically leaping out of her skin when the girl touched her hand. The feeling prompted action if only to get away from the way Stephanie’s skin felt on hers. She watched as Stephanie’s shoulders visibly dropped as she pulled away from the girl’s touch.
Stephanie sighed, “Sabrina, I think...I think you’re doing pretty alright, y’kno? We all have bad days. Be kind to yourself.”
Sabrina set her jaw and looked out into the dark farm, watching as the dying street lights flickered and cast shadows over the cattle nearby. It took awhile for her to gather herself. She didn’t know how long, but Stephanie waited. She didn’t touch her. She didn’t speak. She just sat and breathed for what could have been hours. It worked. Sabrina wiped her sweaty palms on her jean shorts and locked eyes with the other girl for the second time since she crawled into the treehouse. “You got me a cake?” Her voice sounded scratchy, and foreign to her own ears.
Stephanie giggled and her ears stopped ringing. She could hear Him again. “It is your birthday, isn’t it?”
She smiled. “I guess it still is.”
Stephanie hasn’t spoken to me in a week. I don’t know what I did. I think? Ever since she came back her and Junior have been inseparable. They aren’t even together anymore, I don’t get it. I was just so mad and so drunk, looking over at them sitting side by side by the lake... laughing. What’s so funny about being exes? I kissed Miguel, I kissed Miguel all night and I hated every minute of it. I just wanted to forget. All I remember now is the way she looked at us before she left. She hates me.
Stephanie was leaving tomorrow morning. It was the end of August and she had to get back to New York, to do her American things at her American school with her American friends. Sabrina had been parked in front of the large estate for 15 minutes now, prolonging the inevitable. She eventually forced herself to go around back, knowing Stephanie would be sitting on the terrace reading a book or listening to music. Sabrina had sat right by her on that terrace enough times to know the routine. But instead, Stephanie was sitting on a bench in her mother’s hibiscus garden. Sabrina looked over at the girl surrounded by flowers, and her heart tugged. God was mocking her. She had to take a deep breath to approach the other girl. The wet grass squeaked under her sneakers and made her presence known. Stephanie spared a small smile in her direction as she joined her, but everything else was left unsaid. Tension followed her into the garden, thick and foreign as it settled over them. They sat in uncomfortable silence, and seconds felt like hours.
Sabrina swallowed for what seemed like the 10th time, her fists shaking. “Steph..?”
“I’m gonna miss you.” It wasn’t what she had wanted to say.
Stephanie sighed heavily and looked over at her silently, unimpressed; she was waiting, and Sabrina wouldn’t let herself believe it was for her. Stephanie sighed again after a few minutes of nothing before looking over at the flowers, “Yeah...well, I’ll be back for Christmas.”
“I -” She shook her head, “... can’t wait.” Sabrina bit her lip, frowning at her cowardice. There was enough mutual sighing going around to power a hot air balloon.
“If you have something to say, Sabrina, please say it.”
“I just…. can’t.”
Soon enough Stephanie’s cellphone was thrust into her hands. “So type it.”
It took her about 12 minutes of typing and erasing the three-word sentence finally to commit and hand the phone back. She closed her eyes tightly, bracing herself to run the 10 miles it took to get the swamp and feed herself to the crocodiles.
All the air left her body at once, she hadn’t realized she was holding her breath. She nodded, words failing her.
“Can I kiss you?”
“Did you like falling in love with me?
Sabrina raised her eyebrows and small smile fighting its way to her face, “What do you mean?
I shrugged, this was weird. Talking to your ex about falling in love with you after years of silence is really fucking weird. “I mean, I don’t know.”
I took a deep breath before reaching over for the untouched glass of rum and took a small sip. “You’re religious and you live in Jamaica. How did it feel to be a teen falling in love with another girl?”
The smile widened and she sighed, “I didn’t know it was happening until it happened. Looking back, it should have been obvious, but I didn’t really know love in that way. It was innocent. We didn’t expect anything of each other.”
Her eyes narrowed as she looked past me into the farm. “You were kind to me for the sake of being kind, like I deserved it. One day you were my best friend and the most important girl in my life, and the next you were my best friend and the most important girl in my life who I wanted to kiss.”
I smiled back at her, “But did you worry?”
“Of course I did.”
In 2006, Time Magazine branded Jamaica “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth.”. In the article, Time discusses the murder of two of Jamaica’s leading LGBT activists and the homophobic rhetoric often used in Dancehall music, a Jamaican staple. According to the Human Rights Watch, “LGBT Jamaicans are vulnerable to both physical and sexual violence and many live in constant fear, they are taunted, threatened, fired from their jobs, thrown out of their homes, or worse: beaten, stoned, raped, or killed.” The government bolsters this marginalization through discriminatory laws such as “buggery laws,” which outlaw anal sex and all male homosexual conduct. And though gay men and trans women suffer in greater numbers, as of 2012, the majority of Jamaicans still believe sex between two women is a punishable offense.
Being black and queer in Jamaica is an entirely different animal than being black and queer in America. Although I do live with fear, the thought that masked men could enter my apartment to rape, kill, and set me and my family on fire for whom I loved never crossed my mind as a teenager. However, for Sabrina, that was a possibility.
“I didn’t like being who I was. I was terrified of what it meant, but I loved you, I had you, and you loved me. And I guess that made it all ok.”
They killed a man in Montego Bay, they stabbed him and then burned his house. He was gay. I pray his family finds peace. I pray you let him join you.
It was cold in December, for her at least. Stephanie must have been used to it after all the winters she had survived. They sat side by side on a blanket in the middle of the cane sugar stocks. It was the morning right after Christmas, and they had snuck out to see each other and to exchange gifts, but neither of them had touched anything but each other.
Stephanie pulled away, breathing shakily, her brown eyes were wide, pupils blown out, “Do you?”
Stephanie opened her mouth and closed it twice before finally speaking again, “Have you done this before?”
“No.” She lied, closing her eyes, seeing the grin... all teeth and no warmth. “Have you?”
Stephanie bit her lip and looked down, shy for the first time in what seemed like her entire short life. “No.”
“Ok.” She held the other girl’s hand. “ Kiss me.” Sabrina prayed then, hoping an angel was close by to erase his hands and wipe the grin away. Stephanie kissed her softly...awkwardly. To make it so it was true.
Stephanie pulled her into a kiss in the middle of the empty dirt road. It was late at night, and they were walking home from a party. She giggled and wrapped her arms around the taller girl. They tried to kiss again, missing each other’s lips and filling the air with laughter instead. She stopped abruptly as she saw a figure from the corner of her eyes cross the road at the intersection. He was far, but nonetheless, she still felt fear wrapped its cold hands around her.
She ignored the question and stared down the road at the man. He was too far to see them... Right? He had to be.
“Nothing. Can we just go?” She quickly escaped Stephanie’s arms and began walking home again. The other girl stood alone in the dark road as she watched. Uneasiness settled in Sabrina’s stomach. He was too far to see them. He had to be.
She didn’t like that.
Her ears were ringing.
She watched as her brother trashed the kitchen, flinging anything he could wrap his hand around across the room. “I’m going to kill him.”
She was frozen, sitting at the kitchen table as she looked through Stephanie, who was kneeling in front of her. “Sabrina?” She gripped her hands tightly, tugging a little in an attempt to draw a reaction.
“I’m going to burn that fucking church down!” Junior broke one of the old wooden dining room chairs on the fridge in the distance. Stephanie flinched. Sabrina barely heard a thing.
“Sabrina, I have to leave tomorrow, you gotta let me know you’re okay.” Stephanie seemed to have found her switch, her eyes finally registering the girl in front of her.
“Don’t leave, please?”
Stephanie sighed, “I can’t stay, you know I can’t, Sabs.”
Terror seized her heart at the thought of the girl leaving in less than 10 hours. Her hand shook as she reached out to grip Stephanie’s face between them. She wouldn’t survive this.
“Please.” She whispered.
“I promise, I’m coming back. I promise.”
Stephanie flinched again. Junior froze, looking over at them. It was all coming up. Every night she laid awake trying to beat them down with sticks, they were rushing out of her and she didn’t care anymore. She couldn’t let her leave.
“No. Don’t, please don’t... just stay Steph.” She sobbed, “Please just stay and don’t go near him.” She pulled their foreheads together roughly, almost as if she was trying to sink into the other girl head first, “Promise me, please - just don’t, don’t ask, d-don’t go near him.”
“Your mom has to press charges.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Junior slithered over, his rage quieter now. “What do you think the police can do that I can’t do better and quicker?”
“Junior.” Stephanie stood and stared him down. “Don’t do anything dumb.”
“He raped Nia!” Junior was practically growling.
“It happened to me first.” Sabrina stood up finally, looking over at Junior. They both froze.
“What?” His voice cracked, he heard her clearly.
“He raped her but… it happened to me first.”
“Sabrina..?” Stephanie approached her. “When?”
She shook her head, unable to speak through her tears. She fed her little sister to the wolves. Junior walked out of the kitchen without a word.
“Sabrina, what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to stay.”
It's been two weeks since she left. They found Will’s body in the swamp yesterday night. I pray you let him in.
I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, waiting for her to take me back home. I gripped the notebook and looked over at the young woman still sitting on the veranda. I watched as Sabrina reached over for the drink that I had left idle and tipped it back, drinking until the glass of rum was empty.
Her experiences did not define her.
By Stephanie Jones
Illustrations done in collaboration with the New Media Artspace at Baruch College. The New Media Artspace is a teaching exhibition space in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, CUNY. Housed in the Newman Library, the New Media Artspace showcases curated experimental media and interdisciplinary artworks by international artists, students, alumni, and faculty. Special thanks to docents: Maria Alexander, Maya Hilbert, and Jordan La for creating artwork for this piece.
Check the New Media Artspace out at http://www.newmediartspace.info/