Gogo was raised by her uncle after her mother died and her father left for Africa. Her father never returned from Africa, and whether he was alive or dead she never found out. And neither did anyone else, as far as she knew. Her uncle was large and had a strong jaw – a head shaped like an anvil. His words had the same sort of weight. But he didn’t say much, thankfully, and his house on the edge of the river was large enough that they could (mostly/almost) coexist without crossing paths.
Gogo told me she could dissolve into a glass of water when he yelled for peace and quiet.
When I visited her we stayed in her room. If we were hungry we left her house and went to the diner nearby. If her uncle was in a particularly foul mood we stayed at my place, hiding beneath the covers of my bed so that my parents wouldn’t know she was there. We were safe beneath the covers, holding each other and whispering about where we would go tomorrow, next month, next year, forever.
We read books to each other. Great Russian literature and the American classics. We tackled “Waiting for Godot” which was one of her favorites: We said we would go and see it performed one day when we had the money. We read poetry and wondered how so much could be said with so few words.
My parents never caught us. Gogo always slipped through the window before sunrise and before my dad started making jokes at the breakfast table where I pretended to laugh.
My dad always said, “You can’t be a writer if you’re not willing to read and you can’t be a boxer if you’re not willing to bleed.”
(He was neither)
“I’m drunk and have lost my keys. I believe they’re in my pocket, please take them at my knees.”
Gogo’s uncle and my dad met only one time. They argued about politics and then shook hands and agreed, silently, that they should never meet again. Gogo’s uncle was a surprisingly liberal man when it came to politics. And he was so very staunch in his beliefs that it became clear very quickly there was no use talking to him at all.
My father told my mother this at dinner.
Then they both looked at me, and then looked over at Gogo, who was over for the meal (and for the night, though they didn’t know that), with a sort of sad look that I still can’t decide the meaning of. Was it sadness? For Gogo stuck with him? Worry? They always were worried about the future, and they told me so. Worried about jobs and the climate and the direction the country was headed, and still is. They looked at us in the way that only parents can, and perhaps even they didn’t know exactly what it meant – just a deep-rooted feeling from somewhere in their stomachs over mom’s mashed potatoes and turkey and peas.
Gogo hated her uncle. She said as much, but only in her sleep. When I asked her about it during waking hours, she denied it, said she was indifferent “…he’s like any guardian, right? They’re all confused” and refused to talk any more about it. And then, at night, beneath the covers, she would call out or whisper, her eyes still closed, all of the things she wouldn’t say to me when the sun was out.
I was her escape. This much I knew. And I was happy to be that and nothing more.
It wasn’t just that he told her she couldn’t do something. That happens often, and to almost everyone. It wasn’t just that he told her she couldn’t be something, either, for while that does certainly limit a girl’s ambition and resolve, Gogo was the sort that didn’t listen to the opinions of others; didn’t care anyway; decided to work harder, and did.
He never touched her, not physically, or in an inappropriate way, at least. He was not that type of villain.
He was simply unaware. Tone deaf. Self-centered that he never once realized how his actions, and his lack-of-action, affected her. And, as she grew older, she came to see others the way he saw her: As faceless, devoid of anything that didn’t directly benefit or aid in her goals. As nothing more than a shape. As talking and eating, yes, but nothing else.
(It was like her idea of Othello’s marriage to Desdamona: Gogo believed that the great Moor of Venice had never loved his wife, before, after, ever. If he had, she said, he would never have killed her. And especially not on such easily-refutable grounds. Had he loved her, he would have found it in himself to forgive her. She always called Desdamona a “trophy wife” and a prize – the ultimate symbol of a black man’s ascension into the white man’s world – but nothing more. She was never shy about calling Othello vain. She was never shy about accusing Shakespeare of knowing nothing about women. Though, she said, to be fair, the first 118 of his famous sonnets were written for a man.)
Her uncle put their house on the river up for sale the moment she turned 18 and left for college at Cambridge. I never saw her again after she left for school; she never called or wrote. I never saw him again either, though I didn’t need to.
During a terrible storm a few years later the river rose so much, and the winds blew so hard, that the house shook and shivered and then collapsed completely into the mud on the river bank. And there the pieces of it, of her bedroom, of the so-quiet kitchen, of the living room windows, still sit in ruins today. No one bought it. No one will until they clear it away for good.