Ibrahim’s eyes open around four in the morning, as always. He sits up, and next to him, Jada mumbles in her sleep, turning over onto her side and away from him. Lowering his feet to the floor, he slips out of the room and into the hallway. He showers then dresses quietly in the next room, not wanting to wake his wife. When he leaves the house, it is still dark outside. He shoves open the front gate and steps onto the sidewalk, and his mind is drawn to his son, about an hour away.
Kaleem will be already be up and training with his coach. It is mere weeks from the 2020 Olympic Trials and the pressure is up, especially since now Kaleem is a father—and Ibrahim a grandfather—to a six-month-old baby boy.
His name is Anwar.
It means, ‘light’, Kaleem explained, his voice filled with pride. Anwar Ibrahim Carter.
And Ibrahim smiled.
Anwar looks like both his parents. His complexion, currently that of a lightly-roasted peanut, will ripen slightly to a richer, darker hue, but his eyes are the same hazel as those of his mother, Asha, with her dense, spiky eyelashes. Anwar has her disposition as well. He is often still, smiles easily, and is content to lie quietly in his crib or play alone. Occasionally he gurgles to himself, or bursts into loud, high-pitched shrieks as if testing to make sure he still has a voice in this world. He rarely cries. His nose, his lips, his ears are Kaleem’s, and he reminds Ibrahim of what his son looked like as an infant.
Like I spat him out, Kaleem likes to say when he picks Anwar up, holding him above his head like Mufasa did Simba in ‘The Lion King’. We gotta make some more, babe. Two more. Or three. Let’s make three more just like this one.
Whenever he does this, and says this, Asha rolls her eyes but Ibrahim can see the deep feeling in them, and the indulgence. Kaleem will no doubt get three more babies out of that girl. He will get whatever he wants.
About two months after Anwar was born, Ibrahim spent a weekend with his son and daughter-in-law. In the morning, when Kaleem woke up to run, Asha was up as well, and breastfed their son, sitting on the sofa next to him while Kaleem put his runners on and prepared to leave the house. Walking in on the moment, Ibrahim apologized and retreated to the second bedroom listening to their voices trailing behind him.
Kaleem and Asha talk all the time, their apartment filled with the sound of their voices, of them narrating to each other details of their days and the hours they were apart.
Bruh peeled out of the parking lot at like, ninety, I’m tellin’ you …
… She is the meanest teacher in the whole school, and I kind of hope they fire her before I get back … I guess that makes me mean?
I was so high offa that run, babe, I almost jumped over the car instead of getting into it …
… Wonder if I’ll always have this little pooch now. Will you still love me if I’m fat?
Kaleem makes Asha laugh, and when Ibrahim looks at her with his son, he sees a light in Kaleem’s eyes that no one else—except now, Anwar—can ignite with the same ease.
Ibrahim found himself wishing that he and his wife talked as much. They used to, but not now. Now, there is often silence in their house.
When he first came home, they talked. Well into the night, and for weeks afterwards, they had long, winding conversations and frantic bouts of spontaneous lovemaking. But that, too, has slowed and almost stopped.
The very first time he touched Jada, after he came home from prison, Ibrahim was hesitant, slow, and embarrassed that his hands trembled. He was afraid of the strength of his need, and that he might hurt her. Jada was patient, and kept saying that it was okay, that he could go slow, that it was okay … okay … okay.
Her saying that had an effect that was opposite of what she probably intended. He was not reassured. It made him worry that prison had not only stripped them of their easy intimacy, but of her belief that he could please her as a man. And if she doubted his manhood, he wasn’t sure what he had left.
They managed it that night, though the first time had been fast, and no doubt unsatisfactory for her. He waited until he was ready again, and the second time had been better, but still, not good enough. He wanted to try again, but Jada said it was okay … okay … okay. And so he just held her until she fell asleep.
He did not sleep as easily. Or, really, at all, until early the next morning after he was finally able to make her pant and perspire and moan out his name the way she used to before his own foolish actions and the State of California had splintered his family, and separated him from his wife.
Making his way down the block to Free Range, the newest hipster café in the neighborhood, Ibrahim notes that the streets are quiet, deserted, and clean. All the gangbangers are gone these days and in their place are signs on almost every block about city council meetings, and block parties, farmers’ markets and garage sales. Free Range is open twenty-four hours because the couple who owns it, lives in the upper level and have a rotating cast of characters who staff it around the clock. They are young, this couple, and friendly, and fair-haired and perpetually suntanned. The dude wears flip flops all the time no matter his attire, and occasionally he wears skirts, which bear Polynesian prints.
It’s called an ie lavalava, he told Ibrahim when he caught him looking.
And then he launched into a soliloquy about how he didn’t really buy into the whole “gender binary thing” especially when it came to something as meaningless as the garments one put on their body.
That’s cool, Ibrahim told him, though really he was just hoping he would stop talking.
His name is Martin, and his partner’s name is Thea. That’s what he calls her, his “partner.” Funny, the changes in meaning that words have gone through in Ibrahim’s lifetime. While he was in prison, ‘partner’ also came to mean ‘life partner’ or ‘domestic partner.’ Apparently heterosexual people used those terms now as well and it wasn’t just the inadequate subsitute that gay people had to adopt when they couldn’t get married.
Though the streets are quiet, and it would be an ideal morning for it, Ibrahim no longer runs as often. He lost the habit when he was in prison, and afterward, found that he did not enjoy it as much as he used to. When he started, many years ago, it was because it gave him an outlet for the urge he had to move, to get things moving, to get ahead. Now, he has a different impulse – to sit still, to contemplate, to enjoy details, and to appreciate. He is not as hungry as he once was. This lack of hunger and the absence of a fire in his belly concerns him.
Sometimes, he still runs with Kaleem; though not lately now that his son has had to train harder. Now, Kaleem can run circles around him.
Ibrahim approaches Free Range and finds the front door open, and Thea on her knees wiping the glass with a cheesecloth, holding a bottle of organic cleaner.
She stands upright and smiles at him, wiping her hands on the thighs of her jeans and setting aside the cleaning tools to take one of his hands in both of hers. She does a little bow when she greets him, a habit she says she picked up in India, where she once lived on an ashram.
Although he is aware she’s a cliché, Ibrahim likes her. She has that kind of blonde hair that always looks frizzy and dry, and out of control that she doesn’t do much with, except pull it back with a scarf once in a while. Stray strands are always wafting out of nowhere into her greenish eyes, upon which she will swat them away impatiently. She reminds Ibrahim of someone. He can’t remember who.
There is no one else in sight, either inside the café, or on the street. Ibrahim wonders at Thea’s comfort being this alone with him, a tall, brawny Black man. Over the years, Ibrahim met a few white kids like this—the ones in whose eyes he detected no awareness of his being different from them. The ones who he believed truly did not attach any consequence to him being Black and them being white. To whom their difference was a matter of descriptive significance only.
Obama Babies was how Ibrahim thought of them – young people who were in middle school when the Black President was elected, and who grew up in uber-liberal enclaves where it was so accepted it didn’t even merit discussion. Some of those young, white Obama Babies used to come into San Quentin as volunteers. Some of them looked truly surprised at what prison was like. Some of them even cried while they were there, or as they left. Many of them didn’t come back.
“Lemme guess,” Thea says. “Spinach omelet with egg whites only.”
“You got it.” Ibrahim nods. “I’ll help out while you’re doing that … put these …” He indicates the umbrellas for the outdoor seating, still folded, and stacked in a corner.
“Yeah, thanks. That’d be cool. It’s going to be a real scorcher today, apparently.”
While Thea goes in to make his breakfast, Ibrahim unfolds the umbrellas one by one and chooses a place to sit. When he sits, he takes the time to look around and sees that the neighborhood is still quiet. He realizes that he has left his phone at home. Having a cell phone with him all the time is something he still hasn’t become accustomed to, so he often leaves it places.
You can’t do that, Ibrahim! Jada said to him once, when she returned from work and found his phone sitting on the entryway table.
He discovered her sitting on the sofa, his phone clutched tightly in both her hands, still wearing her scrubs from work, eyes rimmed in red.
I didn’t know what to think! she continued, her eyes still a little wild.
You should think I forgot my phone, he told her, calmly.
And then she dropped it to the carpeted floor beneath her feet, put her face in her hands and began to cry.
It was like that at first, after he came out. Like she wasn’t sure she knew him anymore, and didn’t know what to expect. It stung that she thought there was any scenario, any circumstance that would have him walking out on her without even a word. Walking out on her at all. Before prison, she knew that there was no way he would ever leave her unless he didn’t have a choice. Now, he was constantly reassuring her and she was constantly reassuring him when before, no reassurance was necessary.
When Jada works a long shift, as she did last night, his wakefulness unsettles her and that is why Ibrahim leaves the house. She sleeps better, he thinks, when he is not there. And yet, paradoxically, his absence also makes her uneasy.
“Here we go!”
Thea returns, bearing a tray, but on it are three plates. One with Ibrahim’s omelet, another with scrambled egg whites and avocado, and another with whole grain toast. There is also a decorative teapot, and two teacups.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Thea asks.
“Of course not. Please.” Ibrahim gives a brief nod.
Thea sits in the chair opposite him. She has pulled her hair back more securely, and is now wearing sunglasses atop her head. She pours them tea.
Ibrahim smiles at her and then shuts his eyes to say a brief, silent blessing over their meal. When he opens them, Thea is staring at him.
“Were you praying?” she asks.
“To whom?” Thea’s head falls to one side.
Ibrahim’s eyebrows involuntarily lift.
“I mean … what religion are you?” she amends.
“I believe in the existence of the Divine, the Most Holy.”
Thea smiles. “That’s not really an answer though, is it?”
“I don’t believe in God,” Thea says conversationally.
“No.” Thea picks up her fork. “The world is just a random, violent place. And we have to take from it whatever joy we can find.”
Staring at her for a moment, Ibrahim feels a sudden sadness.
“You’re really young to have such a grim outlook,” he said.
“You don’t think it’s random and violent?” Thea asks. “The world?”
“Sometimes violent. But not random.”
“If you really believe that, Mr. Carter, then you must have been a lucky, lucky man.”
“Ibrahim,” he says. “Please. Call me Ibrahim.”