Four chords of Earth Wind and Fire’s “You Can’t Hide Love” climbed out of the Canal Street station and into a flat blue sky, blue like if blue were a shade of gray, dusty teal on an endless wall. Skirted and suited behinds switched in Percy Clondon’s face, briefcases swung against his arms and knees, jostling the Walkman in his pocket as he jogged up the stairs. People crawled like roaches from the station’s mouth, and he felt himself one of them, all skitting over the banisters with the song, spilling onto the pavement as the soul band sang a chorus of aaaahs that could have taken Percy Clondon back to his childhood in the heart of Harlem, back to the storefront cavern of the United House of Worship for All God’s People, all the way back up to heaven.
Love’s found the time for kissing...Can you find the time to listen?
Chinese tops and other cheap toys blinked their colors and spun on the tables that lined the pavement. He lit a cigarette and wove through the crowds of things that sprawled over the street, cataloging them as he went: toy cars, old, slow women, stores with signs in languages that seemed to employ pictures as much as words. There were kids smoking in doorways, greengrocers closing shop, coatless men in white shirts carrying bins of mysterious fruit through clear glass doors, too-thin women curling hipless through the crowd. The smell of fish, bails of raw shrimp on ice. Percy strode the sidewalks lithely, taking in the smoke, the chill, the dirt of Canal, pushing toward the art supply store where he hoped to discover the kind of gift that could make his daughter smile.
It was a trial—a day of colliding against shoppers’ red paper portfolios and fumbling through bins marked “Matte” and “Gouache.” But eventually, with the help of a cute white salesgirl with the kind of changeable skin that had always intrigued him—red with laughter and sex, straw brown in the sun, pale lavender on a cool day like today—he’d found it: a wooden easel with slick wide slats and adjustable everything. He saw Malaya’s thick cheeks rounding out and eclipsing her eyes when she found the easel, tall as the tree on Christmas morning. He saw its adjustable parts expanding, growing as Malaya grew, extending up and out alongside her, always strong and sturdy and there, this thing that her father had bought her. A wink from the salesgirl, and he was sold.
His voice boomed up the foyer walls to the higher floors of the brownstone once he reached Harlem that evening. “Hello—?”
“Hi,” Nyela called back from their bedroom.
He took a breath and stepped into the low light of the foyer, trying, as always, not to feel the house’s weight. He draped his coat on the splintered hall tree, popped a mint into his mouth, and patted the ashes from the lapel. When he reached their second-floor bedroom, he found Nyela on the bed, her back to him. A pile of envelopes and papers sat beside her. Her Drummond University ID card still dangled from the pocket of her suit jacket, and she held a single sheet of paper in her hand. When he bent to kiss her on the forehead, she turned toward him, the phone at her ear.
“I got the paints.” He slid the box out of the plastic bag and dropped it on top of the papers.
She glanced at it, then at him, then into the air in front of her.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got it right here. I’ve—we’ve already made an appointment . . all right, well, thank you. Please know that we appreciate your calling.” She hung up slowly, her hand still resting on the heavy gold-plated receiver seconds after it had clinked into place.
“Where’s Malaya?” Percy took off his belt and walked to the closet to hang it up. A row of black and gray and navy suits hung in the dark space, harbingers of the life he would have to return to tomorrow, so soon.
“In her room,” she said. “We had a little bit of an argument.”
He felt Nyela’s eyes on his back as he stared into the closet.
“What do you think of the paints?” He slid his sneakers off and stuck them in the shoe bag next to his black Bostonian dress shoes. “Fifty dollars and change. The girl at the store said they’re top-notch.”
“Pra, I don’t know what to do.”
Sometimes it was strange to hear it—Pra, the name he’d given his poet-cum-revolutionary self, a persona who had, for all intents and purposes, passed away with the reefer-smoking days of college. Still, Nyela rarely called him anything else. He turned to her, trying to remember when he last heard this voice of hers, a voice soft as dough, begging with perfect helplessness to be kneaded into shape.
“What was the fight about?”
“Well,” she said, looking at the phone. “She was sneaking food again, but that’s not . . .”
“What did she want to eat?” He unbuttoned his jeans and slid them off. Cold air smacked at his knees. He wrapped his bathrobe around him and walked to the room’s center window, which had been stuck slightly open since they’d moved in a year ago. Nyela had asked him to fix this jammed window several times since October, and by now, he noticed, she’d stuffed the crack with cotton padding and bought an electric blanket. The cotton floated to the floor as Percy hoisted the window up, watching flakes of white paint fall from the frame and stick to his forearms. He pushed his head out the window and took a breath of the street.
“I don’t know where she got it from,” she said.
Percy felt her watching him as he tried to push the window downward, imagining what she thought of his taking up this cause only now that she had abandoned it. He kept pushing.
“Got what from?”
“It was a cookie,” she said, flustered. “But that isn’t…”
“Well, kids like cookies, Nyela.” The window slammed into place so hard they both swallowed a breath, both worrying, Percy knew, that the glass might shatter.
“I don’t want to start that conversation with you, Pra.” Nyela stepped into her bedroom slippers and stood. She peeled off her suit and blouse and slid a silky green nightgown over her full hips and behind. He felt he wanted to touch her, but the air between them was thick and delicate, and it was so much easier not to.
Nyela had never been thin, and he wouldn’t have wanted her to be. He liked how she looked. She had a paradoxical beauty—her short, tight afro and her boxy shoulder-padded suits gave the look he knew she was going for, that of a sharp young assistant professor whose femininity was nothing more than a footnote to her strength. But her face was round and soft, and her dimpled cheeks gave her a trusting look. And then there were her eyes. Flat in places and shining in others, like the tiny mosaic tile paintings on the walls of Harlem Hospital, where he spent much of his life as a child. While the pediatric cardiopulmonary wing had the stillness and sterility of an empty fish tank, the dirty, hectic hospital lobby always made Percy feel as if her were standing in the path of an oncoming subway train. The only thing that felt a little like comfort as he waited to be picked up by whatever nurse, or his mother, or uncle so-and-so was the look of the mosaic figures on the wall, shadowy black bodies speckled with glints of shining white, their arms outstretched, faces made of immovable smiles. This was what he always thought of when Nyela’s eyes seemed beautiful to him. The one thing he had to look forward to in a childhood full of looking away.
“You don’t want to start what conversation?” He asked. Easy. Touching would be hard but this was easy. She rustled the hangers in her closet and said nothing.
“What conversation, Nyela?” Too insistent. Too plaintive. He turned back to the window and softened his tone. A crackhead on the stoop across the street yowled. “I don’t want to start any conversation. I’ve had a long day, I went, I bought these paints, I’m tired, and I don’t want to start any conversation.”
She wrapped a green floral print bathrobe around her stomach. “Okay,” she said. But he could see from the tilt of her eyes that the conversation was not done for her. She might let him slip away tonight, but the talk would continue quietly in her mind, and the next time any topic remotely related came up—over dinner, or on her way to the grocery store, or when she came back from buying Malaya clothes—she would erupt, taking him to task for his silence, her feelings somehow hurt by things he hadn’t even had the courage to say.
“Shit, Nyela,” he blurted finally, smacking the paint chips from his hands. “Kids like cookies. Didn’t you like cookies? You think the girl’s gonna eat nothing but rice cakes and celery all her life? She’s eight years old, for God’s sake!” He spun from the window and glided across the room, grabbing his Walkman from his pocket on the way and holding it tight to be sure the Newports didn’t fall out.
“Pra,” she said. “That isn’t even what I wanted to talk to you about.”
He coughed into his sleeve. “I’m too tired for this shit. I’m taking a bath. Look at the paints. I bought an easel too. Two hundred dollars. And if you have a problem with that, receipt’s in the bag.”
The bathroom door screeched on its hinges behind him. He turned the shower’s dial up to its hottest setting and stepped in. Beneath the flush of running water, he let himself cough, then hum, then sing, thinking of Aimee and the easel and the remaining stretch of hours he had to feel something close to free. When he returned to the bedroom, the paint set had disappeared from the bed and Nyela was gone. To the kitchen, he thought, and he wondered what she would do there. She’d left a small yellow square of paper sticking up on his nightstand, between the breath mints he had emptied from his pockets and the Tracleer and Prednizone bottles scattered around the lamp. Her handwriting crowded the page in tight loops:
Pra, the school says Malaya’s physical fitness and agility scores are way below standard. These last words were crossed out, and dangerously low was scribbled beside them. Made an appointment with Dr. Sermons, 12/24 4:00 (only available time). I have to grade. Can you make it?
Then, in rushed print along the bottom of the square: Malaya will love the paints. Thank you. Ny.
The doctor’s office smelled of sickness and turpentine, a combination that had been enough to make Percy steer clear of places like this for two decades. He looked at Dr. Sermons, whose rough brown hand rested lightly on his daughter’s shoulder as she stood on the T-shaped scale, blinking. The doctor raised his hand and pushed the large hunk of metal along the scale’s balance until it slid into a notch. Malaya reached an arm out from under her paper gown and extended it toward the pole in front of her.
“Please don’t touch, Malaya,” the doctor said, placing his hand on her back again.
“Malaya, don’t touch that, baby,” Percy added from his seat, speaking more softly than the doctor. Malaya lowered her hand and looked higher up on the pole.
Dr. Sermons nudged the smaller piece of metal along its track, tentatively at first, and then ran it quickly to the end of the balance. Another notch for the big hunk of metal, another run of the small one. Malaya’s head was cocked all the way back by now, some of her little black braids stuck in the neck of the adult-size paper gown, some swinging their colored beads against her rounded back.
“Okay,” the doctor said. His eyes were still fixed on the scale. Malaya looked at Percy. He smiled back at her.
“Can she get dressed now?”
“I want to listen to her heartbeat again.” Dr. Sermons turned and looked him plainly in the face. He had the look of an old basset hound, his long face shrouded in plush folds, his eyes draped in skin as soft and brown as mud. Percy was ashamed to admit to himself that he had never really looked at this man before. When Malaya was born, the plan had been that he and Nyela would both be present at all of her important moments—at all dance recitals, parent-teacher conferences, black parents’ group meetings, Mr. and Dr. Clondon would present a united front. They would support and represent Malaya, standing as proof that there could be young black professionals, married homeowners with an MBA and a PhD, proud parents of a gorgeous little girl smart enough to be at the Francis Galton Academy for Gifted Children, just as smart as the other Galton parents’ cute little rich children, more beautiful, in fact, and smarter. Doctors’ appointments were to be no exception to that plan. But how naive they had been, he saw now, to imagine that they could both attend to all of these events and still work hard and well enough to pay the mortgage. Nyela had been to each of these appointments without him as Malaya’s weight ballooned, and Percy now felt a tinge of anger as he sat alone in the office, watching a complete stranger press a piece of cold metal into his daughter’s chest.
Malaya’s eyes widened and she sucked in her stomach, her shoulders expanding and pressing back. She closed her eyes and wrinkled her face. Holding her breath, she looked the way she did the moment she was born, eyes closed, cheeks puffed full, her lips pursed vise-tight until she let out her first cry.
Looking at Malaya across the room, Percy was struck by the strange familiarity of his daughter. His cousins all said she looked like him—it was the second thing they said each time they saw her, after they commented on her weight with phrases like “lord, she’s still putting on” and “big boned, huh, just like her mother.” Amid company, Nyela ignored these claims with conviction, saying that Malaya’s look was all Percy, that she had his rocky hairline and his complexion, deep and clear at once, she’d said, like a cup of well-steeped tea. He’d never seen the resemblance, and now, watching the child perched amid scales and yardsticks, she looked stranger, newer to him than she ever had. In this place, it was hard not to notice that her arms spread out nearly a foot in either direction, and that the adult-sized gown clung so tightly to her middle it seemed it might tear. But he also saw how serious she looked, her face stitched tight in frustrated concentration, as though she were trying to make sense of something just out of her grasp. This was something he recognized deeply, and more than anything, this face was the thing about the girl he wanted to see changed.
Malaya opened her eyes and let her body deflate.
“Okay, Malaya,” the doctor said. “Me and your dad are going to talk right out here for a minute. Do you need Angela to help you get dressed?”
“No, thank you.” Malaya stood by the chair where she had draped her sweatpants and sneakers, waiting for the men to leave.
There were no windows in the office next to the examining area, and nausea stirred in Percy’s abdomen as the doctor ushered him to the mile-long desk at the center of the room.
“I don’t know how aware you are of Malaya’s situation,” he said, sitting. “Has your wife discussed our last visit with you?” He tapped the closed folder in front of him.
Had she? Percy thought. Had this been the cause of some stilted and unresolved fight?
“Well, yes,” he said. Confident. Fatherlike. “But why don’t you bring me up to speed firsthand, if you don’t mind?”
“Your daughter is severely overweight, Mr. Clondon. In fact, at her weight and height, we’d classify her as morbidly obese.”
Dr. Sermons clicked his expensive-looking pen and opened the folder. The cool notes of the Earth Wind and Fire song whipped to mind, and Percy swatted them away, pushing himself to focus. He listened for Malaya in the next room.
“Her weight has increased rapidly since I’ve been seeing her,” the doctor said, leaning into the paper. “Six months ago she was at 139 lbs and 53 inches. Now she’s at 150, with only an inch more in height. She’s a smart girl, but she needs you to think for her on this one. If you all don’t do something soon, you will be depriving your daughter of any chance at a normal life.”
He spoke loudly, as though he were on a crowded corner on 125th Street, as though there were no eight-year-old child breathing quietly along the other side of the wall. “She really has to stop gaining weight right away.”
And what could Percy Clondon say? What but “We’re doing all we can,” and “Thank you, doctor.” He could not say anything like “What child does not want to eat a cookie?” or try to explain the ache he felt muscle-deep when he tried to deny her something that it was actually in his power to give.
Percy decided they would walk home that evening, even though it was cold and snow and ice covered on the ground. Even though it was Christmas Eve. He held Malaya’s pink-mittened hand and wrapped her scarf a few times around her neck as they left the office, agreeing to return in two months.
In the elevator, he smiled at Malaya. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Malaya fumbled with her mittens. Watching her, Percy thought about the apartment on the Lower East Side. Before the brownstone, Malaya’s Saturday mornings were spent crawling curiously over the mysterious hills of Central Park with him while Nyela worked on her dissertation at home. He had no idea what world it was his daughter spent her Saturdays in now.
“I guess not.”
She fastened the snaps of her pink coat and dug around in her pockets for her earmuffs. “Can we take a cab?”
“No, baby,” he said. “I think we should walk.”
As they trudged over the mounds of dirty snow along Eighth Avenue, Percy remembered his time on these streets as a child. For him, Harlem’s blocks had been about adventure and trouble, but also about escape. For him, childhood’s joy was found in the deft exploration of pavements. He was sure that these same cement slabs had felt the tumble of his feet and ashy knees for a whole host of reasons. He would crawl through blocks and stores and abandoned lots with a gaggle of pea-headed black boys, skipping school to steal cigarettes for the bigger kids, snatching quarters from the smaller ones, or whoever was lucky enough to have a quarter in the first place.
Malaya had not lived Harlem this way. Times were different now, hard as it was to admit. Children still ran around the streets, but when crack and its minions made their descent a year or so ago, just after their move, the games changed. Now the kids had begun to collect the small primary-colored plastic caps of crack vials and trade them according to hue. Percy watched the drug dealers on the corner sneer and call at the little girls as they walked by, girls so young their only response was to giggle and walk faster.
Malaya had only been mildly disappointed when she was told she could no longer play outside. He had only gotten to see Malaya jump double-dutch one time, as soon as they moved uptown last summer. Two girls had stood on the sidewalk with a white clothesline wrapped around their waists, twirling their hips and arms in rhythm and chanting a song about boyfriend love that he hoped none of them could understand. A line of other girls stood nearby, and as the rope twirled they took turns leaping in, hopping like Yoruba dancers over and under the whirling whip. When Malaya’s turn came, she did not leap in. She spoke to them, saying he didn’t know what, and walked to the center of the clothesline as it lay limp against the pavement. They counted a chant and the rope came alive, and only for an instant, Malaya sprang into action, her smile bright and her braids floating on the air for seconds flat. Soon the whip hit hard against her ankles and clattered to the pavement. She tried a few more times before giving up.
Walking up what used to be Sugar Hill with his daughter now, Percy found himself steeped in the memory of that moment: his baby girl in pink sweatpants, her feet hopelessly stuck in rope.
“Daddy, can we get Chinese food?” She didn’t look up at him. Her eyes seemed to be fixed on her feet or the ground before her.
“Laya, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe Mommy will cook tonight.”
She didn’t say anything. He held her hand as they climbed toward Broadway, his calves stinging, her mitten fuzzy in his palm. She kicked a piece of dirty ice up the hill, pursuing it diligently, coaxing it with her right foot this way and that as she trudged forward. Percy thought about the easel, how he hoped this walk would not make them miss the delivery, how big Malaya’s smile would be when she saw it, tall as the tree on Christmas morning. He thought about his own Christmases, the nakedness of the floor below his mother’s plastic tree. When they passed the Twin Doughnut on Amsterdam, Percy decided to pop in and buy Malaya two Old Fashioned doughnut holes—a compromise, he thought—and led her out to resume her snow-kicking game. And when, closer to home, Malaya lost control of the ice and it flew over to his side of the pavement, Percy kicked it back to her and sang:
Well bless your soul, you can fool a few
I know the truth, now so do you:
You can’t hide love . .