By: Ian M. Evans
Hannah tucked her two cans of spray paint out of sight behind some of the dead flowers and stepped back to admire her handiwork: red letters, still glistening on a gold background, scrawled across the concrete block wall. She wished she’d had enough of the bright red to add a second ‘Rejoice,’ but shake the can as she might there’d been barely enough for the exclamation mark. One of her teachers at Holy Trinity Girls Academy in Princeton had disparaged her for using exclamation points for jokes rather than exclamations, and she thought hard about this one. For sure it was no joke. Can exclamation marks be used to convey hope?
Satisfied, Hannah bent down and adjusted one of the teddy bears to encourage it to sit straighter, despite its rain-soaked body being no longer conducive to the upright posture the nuns in her old school favored so insistently. After three attempts Hannah gave up and let it lurch to one side. Stupid bear. No way I was going to put one there like some of the black girls had. Jayden wasn’t a friend of any of them. He was my friend. He would have sneered at the bears, ’though for sure he’d have given them all corny names. One would be Ted, of course, and the others would be Alice, Bob, and Carol.
The thought made her smile. She remembered the first time Jayden had spoken to her in the run-down high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, near the shrine, near the wet teddy bears, near the burnt-out candles, near the telephone pole offering phone numbers if you were looking for a good time.
“Are you Jewish?” he’d asked, squinting at her through his glasses. “Or maybe you’re a Hufflepuff prefect?”
“I’m not Jewish, I’m Christian, and I don’t know what you’re talking about. Huff and puff what?” Hannah, already fragile on this her first day at this crap school in what she considered the slums of New Jersey, scowled at him.
“Hey, stay cool. I’m making a joke. You’ve got blonde hair in pigtails. Reminds me of Hannah Abbott.” Hannah’s expression revealed her bewilderment. “Shit girl, don’t you read? Hannah in Harry Potter. Hannah Abbott. Her mom was murdered by Death Eaters. It’s hard to joke with an ignoramus.”
“Of course I read. I read a lot. I’ve just never read Harry Potter. Never even seen the movie. I don’t like school uniforms. I didn’t know black kids read Harry Potter. But then I didn’t know black kids wore glasses. You must be some sort of brainbox.”
“And you must be some sort of racist to make generalizations like that. As you’re not Jewish, and you’re not Hannah Abbott, all I know about you is that you are a palindrome.” Hannah scowled at him this time, her confusion turning to annoyance. But Jayden was on a roll. “You know, like ‘madam’ or ‘civic’ or ‘radar’ or as Napoleon once said: ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’.”
“You’re real weird. What’s Napoleon got to do with anything? I hope none of the other kids in this shitty school are as weird as you.”
And from that moment they became best friends. “Friends for life,” Hannah always said, and Jayden always replied, trying to imitate Sarah Palin, “You betcha!” And we were both right, Hannah thought, what we didn’t know was how short…. Under Jayden’s tutelage she read Harry Potter, searching the text for better and better palindromes, which they always called Sarah Palin-Dromes.Well, it made sense. It was now late in 2008; this was the year for going rogue.
But roguishness did not elections win. Sarah disappeared like a shooting star in a dark night; Obama-joy was palpable; holiday celebrations were in the air. Knowing she was alone with an on-again off-again single mother, Hannah wondered if Jayden would invite her for Thanksgiving dinner. He did not. Hannah sublimated by showing up that Thursday at the local, drab Catholic church and volunteering to help with their meal program for homeless men. The priest was impressed, and Hannah got a slice of compressed turkey breast with glazed yams and cranberry jelly from a can for her trouble, along with an invitation to join the church youth choir to practice carols for Christmas.
Sitting at her bus stop, with Jayden’s bike leaning against the ugly concrete block wall, she told him about the church choir. Jayden was surprised.
“You said you didn’t believe in God?” he challenged her.
“I don’t, but I believe in Emmanuel.”
Jayden frowned: “Who the shit’s that? A porn star? I’ve seen Emmanuelle on TV. And I’ve seen the better one, Black Emmanuelle. My dad had a poster for the movie. ‘No one is ever the same after Black Emmanuelle’,” he said in his best theatrical imitation of James Earl Jones’s CNN voice-over.
“Jesus, Jay, you talk a lot of shit sometimes. I’ve no idea what you’re yakkin’ about. And I didn’t know you even had a dad. And how come you know about porn stars? Are you a secret perv?”
“Everyone has a dad, stoopid. At least once. Mine left to join the French Foreign Legion and was never heard from again. So, if you’re not talking about the white Italian chick or the Black Emmanuelle, who’s the Emmanuelle you believe in?”
“If I explain it, will you listen for once and stop like trying to show off how much more you know about the world than me? If you ever listened to decent church music and not some black gospel choir chanting and swaying, you’d know that Emmanuel is like a name for Jesus. There’s a carol we’re learning to sing about it. I think it really means ‘God with us’. Christians, real Christians, not Evangelicals, use it as a term for the Messiah, who will return and free Israel. But I sing it as intended: a message of hope. Hope for mankind, but especially hope for me. And for you.”
For once Jayden had no retort. He wanted to say ‘Israel! Aha, I knew you were secretly Jewish with a name like Hannah’, but thought better of it. This wasn’t a moment for quips. Hannah had never been this serious before. No, not serious, more like philosophical, mystical, spiritual. It felt so real that words would distort the feelings. Instead he put an arm around her neck and kissed her for the first time.
“You’re beautiful, Hannah Palindrome,” Jayden gasped when they both broke for air, smiling at Hannah mischievously. “I’ve got to take you more seriously. I want to know more about your Emmanuelle. Sing me the carol you’re learning in the church choir.”
“What, right here? At this horrid dirty bus stop?”
“Sure. If it’s really as beautiful as you say it is that lamppost there will shake off its blistering posters, sloughing them like a python its flakey skin.”
“You’re so weird, Jay. No wonder nobody talks to us at school. But if you insist, here’s one verse.”
She took his hand for balance and climbed onto the bus stop bench as though she was at the Met where once, in a previous life, her parents had taken her, a short car ride from Princeton to Lincoln Square. Then, in a soft, hesitant voice that gained volume with each line, sang:
“O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
She stopped, embarrassed, before the refrain, but Jayden was looking at her, mesmerized. “That’s so beautiful. What’s a dayspring?”
“An old-fashioned word for dawn. The whole carol is about hope for a better time. We wait in hope for righteousness.”
“Just like we feel about Obama, the boy of mixed race who grew up without a father,” Jayden gushed.
Hannah smiled at him: “So now you’re telling me you do have a hero and you’re not just a deeply troubled cynic and that one day you’ll be the president.”
“Not fuckin’ likely. I don’t have sticking out ears or towering oratory. But I do feel hope…”
“In that case, I’ll sing you the refrain,” Hannah exclaimed and climbed back up onto the bench, but at that very moment her bus came. “Oh shit, I’ve gotta go,” she muttered.
“That’s not a very polite refrain for a Christmas carol,” Jayden smirked, and Hannah stuck out her tongue at him as she gathered up her backpack and waved at the bus driver all at the same time.
Every one of these memories were so imprinted on her mind that sometimes, when she returned to this place of horror, Jayden’s presence was so real to her she wanted to scream to wake herself up from a nightmare of realism.
Red letters on gold. Surely Jayden, the most perceptive of young men, would have understood exactly what she was saying? He would have rejected all pity and despised the teddy bears and the bunches of flowers and the notes about him living forever in their hearts—as false as their tears for someone they laughed at behind his back. And as for the boys! Well, they brought no teddy bears, or flowers, or scented note cards decorated with hearts. They only scrawled in chalk on the pavement deep words of wisdom like: ‘We’ll miss ya, dude,’ and ‘Start it up, J!’ and ‘Roc da Spot’, and ‘You grabbed life by the horns.’
Hannah scuffed up as many of these chalked inspirations with her second-hand Doc Martens as she could. Still feeling Jayden’s arms around her, both that first time and many times thereafter, Hannah fought down her pain, retrieved her spray paint cans and hurried away. Wisely, she knew she had to dispose of them in some big dumpster somewhere. Indeed, only a few hours passed before her cell phone buzzed. Messages were flying back and forth. There was outrage at the school. Someone had defaced Jayden’s shrine. It was scandalous. Shameful. A fuckin’ disgrace. What sicko would rejoice at a young man’s death?
When a car drove up and parked beside the concrete wall at her bus stop, Hannah felt a surge of anxiety—jello legs. The driver opened her window and stared at the wall. She did not get out. Although her face was hidden in shadows, her sadness was fully visible. The way she was hunched forward and the way she gripped the steering wheel forced Hannah’s sharp intake of breath. Shit, it’s her, she hissed, as she watched the driver lean out of the car, stretching out her arm as if to scorch her palm on one of the burned-out candles.
It had to happen. Hannah came every day about this time, after school, and not just to catch the bus. It was about this same time of day that Jayden had first kissed her. It was about the time that Jayden had ridden away on his bike, bouncing over the cracked sidewalk like he was riding a cross-country trail in mountains he’d never seen. It was about the time Hannah had heard the screech of tires and the sickening thump and tearing of metal that had no other meaning.
Without making a conscious deduction, she knew who this woman was.
“Mom’s a social worker,” he’d once told Hannah, unable to hide a note pride in his voice.
“She should meet my mom, then,” Hannah had replied, “she’s got way problems. She’s batshit crazy, ’specially off her meds. That’s why we left a large house in Princeton and had to move to Elizabeth.”
But no meeting had ever taken place. While Hannah’s mother clung, Jayden’s mother avoided. And when Hannah went to Jayden’s house for the first time, his mother wasn’t there. “She works late on Wednesdays,” he’d tried to explain. But she wasn’t there the next time or the time after that. Hannah asked no more questions about her and waited for Jayden to tell her the truth. And she offered no further revelations of her own mother. Clingy or distant—they were equally hurtful, and not to be discussed.
But now this was an opportunity that couldn’t be avoided. Hannah, quick on her feet, moved to the side of the car, grabbed the woman’s outstretched hand and held it. “Hi,” she declared, “it’s me, Hannah; Jay’s best friend. Friends for life.”
The woman was startled but did not pull away. She stared at Hannah. Her eyes were dry but swollen from days of tears. She turned off the ignition and muttered: “Get in.” Hannah climbed awkwardly into the passenger seat next her.
“I’m Kalisha. Jay’s mom. I came to see what the fuss was about. One of the girls from school sent me a text. Told me to look on Twitter and Facebook, which were all lit up. There’s outrage. Someone had defaced the wall above where all his friends have left tributes and notes. There’s total shock. Someone has written ‘Rejoice’. I had to come and see for myself. What sort of sick person could rejoice at a young man’s death?”
She stared at Hannah with her sad, sad, swollen, puffy eyes; they were questioning but not accusatory.
“You didn’t come to Jayden’s funeral. There were lots of kids there, but I’d have remembered if you’d been there. You don’t look like you’re from around here.” Again, it was a statement of fact, not an accusation.
Hannah didn’t answer. How could she disclose her feelings to this woman who was a total stranger to her, though her son had been her first lover, and she his? How could she explain that she had held Jayden’s broken and bloodied body and cradled his head in her arms as the last gasps of air escaped his lungs—sounds barely audible over the screams of the driver on his cell phone.
“For Christ’s sake get a fucking ambulance here. I may have killed a boy on a bike. He came from nowhere right in front of me. It looks bad. No, I don’t know the fucking address. I’m in Elizabeth somewhere, trying to find the rental car return for Newark airport. I’ve never been here before. There’s a big wall and a lamppost. Okay, okay, I’m calm. I’ll ask the girl here if she knows where we are. Fuck, she doesn’t know the address. Off Irvington Avenue, she says. There’s public housing nearby. And a high school. Can’t you track where I’m calling from? I’m not getting fucking hysterical. You gotta get help here.”
Hannah tried to focus. What should she say? ‘I was too distraught to go to the funeral with all the black girls who claimed to be Jayden’s friends but who thought he was nerdy and stuck up and not really black at all?’ That would have been the truth in every way. She’d held him while he died; what would be the point of going to his funeral? Instead she whispered: “Jayden tried to introduce me to you. You were never home when I came over. I’m sure you were busy. He told me you’re a social worker. Did his dad come to the funeral? I know there were lots of kids from school there.”
“I guess you weren’t quite the close friend Jay claimed. He wasn’t being honest with you. Of course, he was always spinning odd stories and tales. I think he read too much. Sometimes he seemed to live in a fantasy world. His father was highly intelligent. A professor. He was white, did he tell you that? Jay’s situation is like Obama’s in reverse. His dad left me and went back to Europe, like Obama’s dad went back to Kenya. I did train as a social worker and worked for a while, but I got into legal trouble. I’ve been unemployed. Jay was embarrassed. He must’ve asked you over only when he knew I wasn’t there. I have to do two years of community service to stay out of prison. I got leniency as a single mom. I don’t know why he wouldn’t tell you these things if you were best friends.”
Hannah was silent again. She stared out the window. At the wall. At the word she’d written in blood red against a gold background. Gold, the color of wealth. The wealth of love and sexual togetherness in a slum in the Garden State. The wealth they had shared with a unique friendship that benefitted from mystery—not dishonesty, just not telling all there was.
Hannah knew Jayden’s father hadn’t ever joined the French Foreign Legion. It wasn’t a lie, it was figurative. He’d disappeared from Jay’s life; he might as well have been in the French Foreign Legion. But it was a metaphor, the symbol of a haven for men wanting a new life, willing to fight anywhere for causes not their own. And she’d never told Jayden about her own father, a wealthy business man who’d assaulted her mother so badly they had had to flee to a shelter, a women’s refuge, and were now living on welfare. But Jay had known she had come from privilege and that its loss made her bitter at times, for which human frailty he forgave her.
Perhaps trying to reach her, Kalisha started speaking again. “Jay did tell me he’d made friends with a wonderful girl who made him laugh. He didn’t say you were white. Maybe he thought I’d disapprove. He showed me a Facebook page once with a photo of a group of black girls. I assumed they were his good friends.”
“They were not.” Hannah was vehement. “The girls at school hated us both. The black girls because I was white and the white girls because he was black, and both groups because he was smarter than any of them. They thought his quirkiness was arrogance and his smarts superiority. We had each other so we didn’t care. And to tell the truth, we didn’t really care what our mothers were or were not doing. For both of us our parents had failed us. We were emotional orphans.”
“Oh my god, you’re insolent. I can see why Jay liked you. I’m in mourning even if you are not. Try to be kind.”
“Fuck you,” Hannah snarled and fumbled for the car door handle. “I can’t take this shit.” But Kalisha reached across her and held the door closed. The physical contact, the first they had had, relaxed Hannah. She sat back and closed her eyes. She was crying.
Kalisha softened too. “Jay said his girlfriend was religious; a Catholic.”
“Are those his words?” Hannah demanded.
“Maybe he said spiritual or mystical or something like that.”
“That’s better. And did he call me a girlfriend?”
“Maybe not. Whatever he said I inferred you were having sex. And if you were Catholic I worried that you wouldn’t be using protection.”
“Call me insolent if you want, ma’am, Kalisha, but I can see that Jayden didn’t get his insight from you. Don’t you know Catholics do what they want in private? And we didn’t have sex, as you call it, we made love. You can’t get pregnant from making love. I’m not yet sixteen. We were and are both still virgins. It was our love that ‘dispersed the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight’.”
“Is that a poem you learned at school?”
“No, it’s from a carol I learned in the church youth choir. Jayden loved it. It’s about hope. It’s about the coming of Jesus to ransom those who are in captive, or in exile, just like we were. The word ‘Israel’ symbolizes the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the word ‘Emmanuel’ refers to the coming of God.”
“Is that why Jay was always signing to himself ‘Oh come, oh come Emmanuel’? I thought it was some negro spiritual he’d picked up on the radio, but I don’t know much about such things. I was never taken to church.”
Kalisha was still hanging onto the door as though letting Hannah escape would presage her final disappearance, with no explanation. Kalisha was not a deep thinker like her son, but she was beginning to suspect that Hannah knew the meaning of the word on the wall, and Kalisha needed to know what it was, to stop the chatter on social media, to stop feeling that her son’s death could possibly have been welcomed by anyone. She was sure it could not have been welcomed by Hannah, but had she not written the word?
Hannah wanted to push her arm away, open the car door, and run for the wall, the hateful wall, like she’d seen movies of East Germans running for the wall in Berlin and being slammed against it by withering machine gun fire. If she ran for this wall would a hail of bullets end her pain?
“Before you go, will you sing me the whole carol? Please. Sing it for Jay’s sake. Sing it for me, the woman that gave life to the boy you loved. Sing it like you sang it for him. Sing all of it.”
‘Like you sang it for him.’ That was impossible. She never sang the refrain for him until they had, for the first time, made love like grown ups do. “Can’t we still call ourselves virgins?” Jayden had asked her earnestly, “when all we did was share our bodies with each other and we’ll never again share them with anyone else?”
“I’m sure that’s what virginity means,” Hannah had giggled. “I’m as pure now as I was ten minutes ago, even though I’m ‘in cloud, and majesty, and awe’!”
“Then,” Jayden begged, “sing me the refrain that you refuse to utter, you crazy white Catholic palindrome.”
Hannah stood up on the bed, naked and beautiful and pure. It was hard to keep her balance. It was hard to get out the words, just as hard as it was now, in his mother’s car, pinned to the passenger seat, but she sang for her life, sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and for Jayden’s life, the ancient refrain: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”