From her kitchen window, Naomi watched her daughter Niya, as the child gently tried to cajole a neighborhood cat to her. The 7-year-old was all large brown eyes, dark curls, and long brown limbs which all seemed to glimmer in the warm light that late afternoon. That Sunday night was unusually warm for October in Denver, and Naomi took advantage, letting her daughter play outside so she was able to get the house picked up before her father arrived to pick Niya up.
Naomi was quickly picking up her small studio apartment, making sure it was cleaned up enough to withstand her father’s unforgiving gaze. The apartment was part of a larger house that had been divided into small rental units, providing Naomi with a yard for her daughter where she could watch as the child played outside. A small air mattress was sitting beside Naomi’s full-sized bed which was next to a small kitchen table piled with papers, books and a small television set. That was it for any furniture, which had all been hand-me-downs from her cousin, for whom they had also been handed down. Her cousin had also provided the sheets, comforter, dishes, towels and Tupperware in order to unload some of her older things when she got married. The apartment was less than 400 square feet and even with three items of furniture, felt crowded.
Niya had found a way to amuse herself, in the way only children were particularly skilled at; creating elaborate stories in the front yard, acting out her made-up adventures of pirates and princesses, talking to imaginary creatures, finding new places in which to act out her stories. She would spend hours reading books and sometimes Naomi would find her just staring into space, engrossed in her own thoughts. Today, it was one of the many stray cats that haunted the neighborhood seeking food.
Naomi worried that Niya was lonely but had been informed that while she did have friends, Niya preferred to be alone most of the time. Naomi thought that maybe someday she would like to give Niya a sibling. That evening while watching her play outside she imagined three of them living together in a real home, like a real family. But until then, her parents had advised her to just let Niya be herself, she would either grow out of it or blossom into it.
The thought sent a shiver of anger through her. She had never been allowed to grow out of or grow into anything, just grow up and shut up. Her parents seemed different now, in this third act of parenting; they had acquired more patience and thoughtfulness with Niya, who was treated with the diligent affection she had so often craved. They still continued to look at Naomi with impatience that bordered on disdain.
“Naomi,” The sudden sound of Niya’s tiny voice startled her out of her thoughts. She turned to see Niya standing before her, brown eyes so wide they took over most of her face.
Naomi panicked. Had the cat outside scratched her? Did she fall down trying to chase after it? If she was hurt in any way, Naomi would have to explain why she wasn’t watching her closely.
“Yes,” Naomi responded, looking Niya over for any scrapes or bruises while trying to keep her voice from shaking.
“Do you have any turkey or tuna or chicken? I found a kitten outside and I think it’s hungry.”
Naomi sighed relief and bent down to get to eye level with her, getting on her level like she learned in her parenting classes, “Sweetheart, I’m not sure I have anything to feed it, and I really don’t want it coming around here looking for food after you’ve left.”
As the words left her mouth she noticed as Niya’s face slowly began to drop. She thought about how it was difficult enough trying to keep an adequate amount of food in the house for these weekends, or at least Naomi’s mother’s version of adequate.
She looked again at her daughter with those slouching, defeated shoulders. She wasn’t sure if it was an act or if she was genuinely distraught over this. Despite her own reservations about the potential manipulative behavior, Naomi didn’t want these weekends to be polluted by anything.
She smiled, “Let me see what I can find. Why don’t you go back outside, and I’ll bring something out?”
Niya’s face ignited into a lively smile as she turned and shot out the screen door. Naomi turned back to her cupboards and started searching and trying to remember what she did with a can of potted meat she was given at the local food bank.
Before each of these precious weekends, she would spend any extra time stocking up on food for when her mother, Loraine dropped Niya off on Friday nights. Her mother would insist on conducting a full inspection as though she thought Naomi would starve the child, or maybe worse. Loraine would open every cupboard and inspect the refrigerator closely. Her eyes darting around the small kitchen and living area. Then suddenly, Loraine would announce that she needed to use the bathroom and for about 10 minutes she would loudly rummage through all the cabinets and the wastebasket. This always happened in full view of Niya.
“Ni needs full meals, all food groups for every meal.” Loraine would instruct her. Naomi knew her parents did not adhere to such strict measures at home, but she had to pick her battles in this war.
These demands meant the preparations took up what little time and money she had. Her rent, bills, court fees, probation fees, restitution, drug testing fees, and paying for her court-ordered counseling almost took up more than she made. She worked nights as a janitor and her days were filled with court-mandated classes, surprise visits from her probation officer, and running around Denver looking for ways to stock her little kitchen.
She had quickly learned over the course of the past 10 months where all of the local food pantries were, and which ones stocked what type of food. She knew when the local grocery stores would put out their clearance items, what days she could use double coupons and what cashiers would be more accepting of expired ones.
Naomi caught herself removing the random cans and boxes from her cupboard with a sudden fury. Her mother continuously dictating the terms of the relationship with her daughter, forcing herself into their relationship. Her probation officer’s relentless intrusions into her finances and private life. There was nothing that Naomi could do about it. Just wait and follow all of these rules that were imposed on her. The frustration of suddenly being shackled to the expectations of others was new for her and she had to keep reminding herself of the long-term goal.
Niya had lived all 7 years of her life thinking that Naomi was just another family member with no real connection and that Bill and Loraine were her parents. Naomi had refused to be known as her sister, even though they both called the same people mom and dad. She had firmly said no to being called an aunt or cousin. She didn’t want to be sidelined in her life that way and it was one of the few concessions she had won with her parents after her release.
It had come as quite a surprise, the day she got out. All she wanted to do was get a cheeseburger and see her daughter. Her calls had gone unanswered since the day she was arrested, which was a few days After Niya had been born. When she tried to notify her parents about her release date, she had received no response. The only person in her family that picked up the phone was her cousin, Daya, who had come to pick her up that day.
When the bus dropped Naomi off, there stood Daya with her rental car, smiling. The two shared an awkward, yet warm embrace. During the car ride over, Daya tried to fill the silence.
“Did you have a TV in there?”
“Oh, that must’ve been so nice. At least you were able to keep up on a lot of TV shows.”
“Not really. It was more like a group TV. And I didn’t get to watch very often. Did I miss out on much?”
Daya laughed. “Oh, okay. What did you spend your time doing?”
“Thinking about my daughter,” Naomi stated.
Her cousin didn’t respond. She reached over to turn on her car radio, turning the volume all the way up to drown out the uneasiness. As Naomi settled into the passenger seat, her thoughts drifted to the next stage of her life. She leaned forward and turned the song down.
“I haven’t been able to get a hold of my parents. Do they know we’re coming to pick up Niya?”
Daya cleared her throat, Naomi noticed that suddenly she sat a little straighter and seemed to focus more on her driving.
“Did you get any of your mail while you were in there?” She asked.
“I didn’t get any mail,”
“Anything regarding Niya?”
“FUCK, can you just tell me what you think it is I need to know? I don’t need the 20 questions.”
Daya cleared her throat. “Your parents are keeping her.”
The words hit Naomi.
“What do you mean? They can’t make that decision.”
“I don’t know Naomi. All I know is what your mom told my mom who told me.”
“Well, what else did they say?”
“Look, I don’t know the details. I didn’t even tell them I was coming to pick you up today.”
Again, Daya cleared her throat. “You aren’t a subject we are allowed to bring up.”
Naomi took both hands and roughly ran them through her hair, grabbing it at the nape of her neck. She shut her eyes tightly.
“I need to see her, Daya.”
“I’m not taking you over there.”
“Then drop me off somewhere. I can take a bus.”
“No, I’m not doing that either. You can stay with me tonight.”
“I want to see my fucking kid.”
“Naomi… I need you to listen to me. I’m going to be very blunt with you. Niya doesn’t know who you are. She doesn’t know your name. The only thing she does know is that Bill and Loraine are mom and dad. She knows she has another mom who gave birth to her and then gave her to them. She’s lived all three years of her life as happy as I’ve seen any child. If you just show up, it’s going to fuck her up, and we have enough fucked up in this family. You know they had her tested at the hospital, don’t you?”
Naomi sat for a moment, letting the tears flow freely down her face. “Yes. I was there.”
“Then you know everyone was worried that what you did was going to cause long-term damage to her. And she seems to be fine. She’s hit the talking, walking and all that with no problems. But there was a real concern Naomi.”
A tight stillness settled over them. The remainder of the car ride was punctuated by things they thought but did not say. Naomi got the feeling Daya was holding back a lot, but what she had said hurt. Niya had no idea who she was. Niya called Loraine ‘mom’. Niya was doing well without her. Without her.
They continued on like that until they arrived at Daya’s apartment.
Naomi had pulled all of the contents of her cupboards onto her limited counter space. She couldn’t find the potted meat, but she had managed to locate a small can of tuna she had been saving for her work lunches for the week.
“Hey, mama…oops. Sorry. I mean, Naomi.”
Naomi could feel her stomach drop and throat tighten. A slip, an opportunity.
She grabbed the can of tuna and a can opener, turned, and walked slowly to Niya, digging deep into herself for the words. She looked at Niya’s face; her big brown inquisitive eyes searching Naomi’s face.
Every time she heard the words leave Niya’s mouth, directed to Loraine it was like a switchblade into Naomi. Her baby wasn’t even a day old when her parents had come to her and she hadn’t known what to do. She was 17 and had been living on the streets for so long after running away. She wouldn’t have adequate food and housing for the baby. She wouldn’t have stability, and a child needs two parents.
“It’s okay for you to call me mom. I actually like it when you do.”
The look on Niya’s face changed drastically. Naomi couldn’t quite register exactly what it was at first, but a dark mood started to creep over their evening together. Niya’s eyes now confused and looking for answers. There was no turning back now.
“What do you mean?” she said in her little voice.
Naomi sat down next to the little girl. She gave a soft smile and began.
“You know how Mama told you that you came from another woman’s tummy?”
“Well, you came from my tummy.”
Niya’s face scrunched in panicked confusion and in that moment, Naomi realized she hadn’t thought it through, and didn’t know where to take it from here.
Naomi turned to fully face her daughter, remembering a piece of advice from her parenting class to always look children directly in their eyes and get at their eye level when possible.
“When you were a tiny baby, I realized I couldn’t take care of you, so I asked Mama and Papa if they could take care of you until I could get better and then I would be able to take care of you.”
“Were you sick?”
“Kind of. I was… I didn’t have enough money to take care of you. I didn’t have any place to live. I wasn’t ready.”
“And now you are?”
“I’m trying to be.”
Niya’s eyes swelled with tears, “Is that because mama and papa don’t want me anymore? Is that why papa won’t live with us anymore?”
The divorce. Naomi hadn’t thought about the divorce.
Niya’s little body broke down in tears. She began to cry, sobs causing tremors throughout her. Naomi grabbed her and began to hold her tight.
“Shush. It’s okay sweetheart. Mama and Papa love you very much. And Papa moving out has nothing to do with you, okay.
Suddenly Naomi heard the sound of her father’s car. She looked up to see his truck in the driveway. He was never early, except at this moment. It’s like he knew she fucked up.
“What’s wrong?” He asked as he got closer.
Niya wriggled her way out of Naomi’s arms and embraced Bill as he looked puzzled at Naomi.
“Sweetheart, why don’t you go get your things together?” Naomi said, suddenly feeling the need to remove Niya from what she knew was about to happen. Niya quietly nodded and went inside, stopping before the door to notice the cat watching her.
“Ni hurry up I need to get you back home. You have school tomorrow” Bill said.
Niya went into the house. Naomi tuned herself to face her father, at first confident, then less so. She kept her eyes firmly on the ground.
“So, what was that all about?”
“I told her,” Naomi said, almost whispering.
“You told her what?”
Naomi glimpsed his face before averting her eyes back to the ground. She did everything she could just to avoid her father’s exacting glare, but she could feel his eyes as they attempted to rip a hole right through her. She looked up again, his face tense with frustration and resentment.
“God damnit Naomi, tell me you didn’t. Tell me that’s not what she was crying about.” He said.
“Daddy, I had to. I just couldn’t take it anymore. She slipped, she called me ‘mom’ and I couldn’t not tell he—”
“Why would she call you that?”
“I told you she just slipped.”
“No, she didn’t. She wouldn’t just slip. She has had one mother and one father her whole life. The only way she would ‘slip up,’ as you like to put it, is if she was encouraged to do so.”
“Daddy, I’m telling you, it broke my hear—”
Bill put up his hand and Naomi to flinched into silence. Through clenched teeth he said, “I don’t want to hear it.”
Niya moved slowly out of the house with her backpack slung clumsily over one shoulder. Her serious brown eyes were still pink and puffy, and the previous joy had been completely wiped from her face. Now she looked at Naomi, her mother, with a clouded mix of confusion, hurt and betrayal. She walked over to the cat, who finally allowed her to give a couple of gentle pats on the head. She then walked over to Naomi, giving a robotic hug around the waste. Then, as though she could sense the tension, she smiled and looked up at her.
“Do you think the cat will still be here when I come over next weekend?” Niya said, trying to make her voice more cheerful. Naomi swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m sure she will be sweetheart. She’s figured out where the food is.”
“Can we name her?”
“Come on Ni, we have to get going. You have school in the morning.” Bill said.
Naomi looked at her father and then back at her daughter. “Of course. We’ll see you next weekend, okay?” The lie stinging her throat as she bent down to look her child in her eyes. She examined her, drinking her all in: the big dark curls framing her face, long dark brown limbs, the deep seriousness that lived behind her eyes. “I love you Niya.”
“I love you too.”
Bill placed his hand on Niya’s shoulder, moving her away from Naomi, who stood up to face him. He put an arm around her, pulling her into a tense embrace and whispered, “You really fucked up this time.”
As she watched her father’s truck pull away, Naomi sat down and waited for the call. She knew exactly what to expect. Part of her felt relief, it was better that Niya knew now instead of waiting until she was older, what her parents wanted, some vague time when they thought her daughter would be old enough to process the information. She waited, as the sunset, and the cool darkness descended on her little yard.
From inside, she could hear the phone ringing. No doubt it was her mother. No doubt she would not answer.
Naomi felt heavy and defeated. She could feel her shoulders start to slump, slowly as though her mother’s essence on the other line was pulling all the air out of her.
She knew there was no defending what she had just done, so she didn’t even bother. She let the phone ring and ring.
She sat, listening to the phone’s frantic ring until again, it stopped.
Naomi decided to go back inside. When she stood up, she felt something soft, cool slithering its way between her calves. She looked down to see the cat, as predicted looking for more food. Naomi became furious. If it wasn’t for this cat none of this would have happened. She started to move to the door, but the cat blocked her, looking to Naomi then to the door. “You’re not getting in that house, shoo” she attempted to move around the cat, but it moved a quicker, to try and sneak inside the screen door. Naomi’s impatience was growing, and she bent down to grab the cat by the ruff of its neck to move it. Then she caught a look at its face.
It wasn’t a young cat or kitten at all. Naomi bent down to get a better look. The cat was older and had definitely been someone’s at some point. Maybe the girl who lived here before her. But now here she was, fur dirty and clinging to her tiny body. A look of desperation and a piercing yowl escaped the cats tiny, misshapen mouth. Naomi stood up and opened the door as the cat ran inside and stopped to look back at her. “Come on friend,” Naomi said, “let’s see what we have inside for you.”
Donnae Wahl lives in Denver, Colorado with her cat Riley. By day she works for the government, by night and every other moment of her life she is an author and artist.