The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir

BOOK: The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir

A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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The names and characteristics of some individuals in this book have been changed.

Copyright © 2009 by Staceyann Chin

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Scribner Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

and design are trademarks of The Gale Group, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, Inc., the publisher of this work.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2008034022

ISBN-13: 978-1-4391-5937-8
ISBN-10: 1-4391-5937-8

Selections of Kamau Brathwaite’s
The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy
(Oxford University Press) have been reprinted courtesy of the author.

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For Bernice, who stayed

The Other Side of Paradise

The front of the car was not designed for having sex. And Hazel did not want to think about the wet that would be left on the smooth leather seats afterward. What kind of man would bring her here for an intimate evening? He was a man of means. He could afford a hotel room. What did he take her for? She was not a whore. She was just a girl who needed a little help, that’s all. She needed his help, but she didn’t have to put up with this. It was time for her to go home. She reached out for the metal lever, but he leaned across her and pushed her hand away.

He was upset that she wanted to leave. Then he was cajoling. They hadn’t even had a chance to talk, he said. Finally, she agreed to stay. But she let him know that she was not going to have sex with him in a car parked on the road somewhere. She was not that kind of girl. He seemed hurt by the suggestion that that was all he was after. Montego Bay is a tourist city. If he didn’t want to spend time talking to her, he would have taken her to one of the numerous hotels filled with Americans having vacation sex, he said. He asked about the romance novels he saw her reading all the time. He listened attentively when she told him how difficult it was to find a good job if you didn’t come from a rich family. Suddenly she was sorry that she had mistrusted him. She sighed and fiddled with the hem of her navy blue linen skirt. He wasn’t at all like she had imagined.

Hazel forced herself to relax. She smiled and leaned against his chest. She told him that she wanted to make something of herself.
Why shouldn’t a girl from Lottery have nice things like the women living in those big houses in Montego Bay?

He had his limitations, but he wanted to give those things to her, he told her. His hand caressed the curve of her shoulders. She tried to pull away from him. She reached for the door again, but he held both her arms and eased her slowly toward him. She braced her palms hard against his chest as he placed the tiniest of kisses on her neck. She shouldn’t let him do this to her. She was better than this. Better than his pale hand on her breast, his red lips against her throat. Her soft “no” was swallowed as breath when he pushed the small of her back into the jutting door handle and placed his mouth over hers. She was better than this, she thought. She deserved a whole lot better than this.

This story is the only one I have imagined that holds all the irrefutable facts while leaving room for my existence. My mother, the man she swears is my father, and the people who knew them then have very different accounts of what happened or didn’t happen between them. In each version my mother is young and beautiful and basking in the attention of the Chinese man she says is my father. Everyone agrees that they met at a bar. My mother has admitted that she thought the witty Chinese gentleman interesting, that even though he was short, he had a way with words and was unafraid to speak his mind. The men who frequented the bar say that the two of them enjoyed being in each other’s company. After that the details get sketchy.

My mother was raised in the country, but three years living in Montego Bay had made her city-smart. Poor, young, and a single mother, she nursed a penchant for distinguished older men with money. The Chinese man she met in the bar was a fairly well-off married man with a reputation for liking young pretty girls. She insists that she did not know he had a wife. He recalls laying all his cards on the table. Other versions of the story suggest they are both omitting things. People say she spent a lot of time with him. She said it was only one date. Both of them recall an interaction in a parked car. An unspecified number of months later, my mother gives birth to me, half black, half Chinese. This is the loose skeleton upon which I have hung the beginning of my own life.

The event of my birth, however, comes vividly to life. My grandmoth
er’s frame settles into her chair when she describes the week she spent cleaning every inch of the Lottery Police Station in preparation for the Christmas holidays. “Every one of them police officers was kind to me, so me wanted to make things nice for them. So me was just working and working and working every day. But the day before Christmas, the police chief come directly to me and tell me, ‘Miss Bernice, you take care of us all year, please put down the broom. Go home and take care of your own sweeping. This is the season for family, go home and be with yours.’ Those days me could hear a little better, so me catch most of what him say.”

She laughs when she remembers his words: “Sometimes a woman needs to feel her own dust sticking to her sweating face.”

At twenty-three, my mother spent her evenings out and about. That Christmas Eve she got home a little after midnight. As soon as my mother stepped in, she started complaining about a pain in her stomach. Grandma always pauses dramatically here. She rubs her chin and mentions that she had been nursing a slight suspicion that my mother was with child. But since Hazel was good at secrets, she wasn’t entirely sure.

She watched my mother drop her bag on the veranda and head toward the outhouse. But before she got to the door she doubled over, panting. The way she was holding her belly made Grandma ask her if she was pregnant. She shook her head no. But Grandma knew she was lying. So she held on to her and told her to stoop and do whatever she had to do right there. “Stacey, I wish you coulda see her! Your mother is such a prideful woman. She tell me no, that she is not a wild animal to be using the floor as a bathroom. She was so vex with me, but I wouldn’t let her out. She had to bend down right there on the floor. In no time, you was born. Your mother look on her wristwatch and tell me that since it is after one o’clock, your birthday is Christmas day proper. Same day as Christ Jesus of Nazareth.”

Grandma says that I was smaller than any baby she had ever seen. But I had all my fingers and toes, so she quickly cut my umbilical cord and wrapped me in my two-year-old brother’s baby blanket. My mother told people I was that small because I was premature. But Grandma secretly believed that it was because Hazel, in an effort to hide her pregnancy, used strips of cloth to flatten her belly during the pregnancy. When Grandma tried to hand me to my mother, Hazel took one look at my face and said she was too tired. Then she fell asleep.

People had to be careful when they held me. The neighbors all thought I was going to die. Miss Cherry, the local expert on premature births, said I wouldn’t live for more than a week. Three of her six children were dead on account of being born before their time.

“A baby that born too early need to be inside a glass thing they call a incubator!” she pronounced. “A baby born more than two months premature can’t live without that machine. And this baby look like it born about three months before time. If it live, it will be a miracle or a mistake.”

Grandma pauses here to remind me that God does not make mistakes. For when I opened my mouth to cry, everyone had to admit that a baby with that much lung capacity did not sound like a baby that was destined to die. “Stacey, the whole of Lottery could hear you bawling! And when me was cleaning the blood off your face, you was fighting me like a little bull. Me just tell everybody fi keep them mouth shut because this little girl here going to live and live and live till the good Lord see it fit to call her back home.”

There are days when I yearn to know exactly what happened to spark the very beginning of me. But in the absence of the most basic facts, I have had to create my own story and, in many ways, set my own course. The story that follows is the journey I remember. It tickles me to think that from my very first breath, everyone expected me to stop breathing. Against the odds, I surprised everybody. And I must admit that in some of the moments of my life so far, no one has been more taken aback by my own breath than me.

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