On the evening flight on my way to the 2016 annual gastroenterology conference, I am the only one with the reading light on. Everyone else sleeps limp-necked, heads drooping, bobbing in the occasional turbulence of the late-winter skies, stabilised by the seat back or a neck pillow. The person next to me – a pale young woman with long brown hair, perhaps a medical student attending the conference or a Georgian returning home – puts her head on the seat-back table and her Sherpa-lined khaki jacket over her head to cover her eyes from my yellow light.
I am travelling to Atlanta, the city where the cousins that I grew up with have lived since George W. Bush’s election, having moved there with their father in search of larger homes and a cheaper life than the one they found in New York. On the recommendation of one of my few remaining friends who are not doctors, and out of the desire to learn about the city, I read Toni Cade Bambara’s posthumous novel about the epidemic of child murders in the city. Between 1979 and 1981, over 28 Black young people – 24 of them under 18 – went missing and were eventually found dead. The violence became a mainstay of regional newspaper headlines, but I get the impression that the child murders never reached national news. I certainly did not read about them in my high school history textbook.
Bambara titled her novel Those Bones Are Not My Child. The phrase conjures images of a police officer presenting a mother an evidence bag – bones linked by decaying sinews, pockmarked with fraying grey muscle fibres, splotches of dark brown, dried blood – and asking her if this is her missing young one. Tests – dental records, DNA examinations, and the other forensic assessments of the late twentieth century – could not convince parents the children were who officers claimed they were. This uncertainty drives Bambara’s protagonist to insomnia, unable to find rest in her bed, on her couch, in the passenger seat of her car. When she finally falls asleep, the protagonist doesn’t know where she is or who it is that’s dreaming, her day self in a half-doze or her night self sleeping. Nor is she sure if she was the dreamer or the being dreamt. It’s not so much that her waking and sleeping life are indistinguishable as that the two come to be like cells with permeable membranes, the molecules of one finding their way into the other. When she wakes, the nightmare continues: her child is still missing. A cycle: she lives nightmares because she cannot sleep; she cannot sleep because she lives nightmares.
Last year, in 2015, I visited Atlanta for the first time for the wedding of my cousin Shane. The morning I arrived, my other cousin and Shane’s brother, George, picked me up from the airport. We stopped at his house in the Southside, one-time home to Evander Holyfield and more recently made famous by Lil Baby and 2 Chainz, to pick up his 10-year-old daughter, Tanesha. We drove to a wing spot with bulletproof glass and autographed Polaroids of rappers who were presumably famous in Atlanta, though I didn’t know any of them. We ate at the plastic counter facing the window, got back in the car to head to my hotel, and drove down Old Nat, one of those great Southern four-lane thruways, flanked by turnoffs to tucked-away residential communities, a winding sidewalk that appeared and disappeared at seemingly random intervals on which few people walked, and endless strip malls of dilapidated supermarkets, wing spots, and medical offices. Shane told me George’d been trapping. He asked if I was in a rush. I said no. He put on Future’s soundtrack to the remake of the movie Superfly, Tanesha fell asleep in the back seat, and we drove from deal to deal.
At a red light, after looking to his left and right, George skipped the first song on the album. The bass boomed over a soul sample, George and I nodded to the beat, and Future rapped through the speakers, I’m always high as the moon; tell me what’s up with that? 21 Savage responded, I ain’t never had shit; what’s up with that? On God, I grew up sleeping on pallets, nigga; what’s up with that?
No answer satisfies. Questions multiply. Why am I always high? Why did I grow up broke? Why didn’t I have a bed? Why can’t I sleep? Why can’t I sleep? Why can’t I sleep?
As the music played in the background, George told me he wasn’t selling crack any more. Just weed. He wanted people to think of him when they were having fun.
‘You smoke to fall asleep?’ I asked.
‘Can’t sleep without smoke,’ he said. ‘I’m going to stop once my charges get dropped though. Take out student loans and go back to school.’
‘What you want to go to school for?’
‘Actuarial sciences. Trying to make my money legal. Stack enough to cop an old warehouse with a hideaway garage, somewhere I can live without nobody knowing I’m there.’
‘Covert in the middle of the city,’ I said.
He nodded. We were quiet as we drove, a nervousness bubbling in my stomach. Finally, I asked about the charges. He said it was a he said, she said kind of thing, but when you’re running through the woods with bloodstains, chopper overhead and spotlights looking for you, no one believes you. So they locked him up. One of his boys posted bail. Before George got locked up, he had been staying with his father, Uncle Clark, so when he got out, he figured that’s where he would stay. But when he finally got home, Uncle Clark kicked him out. Shane was up north, so George slept in the bando. It wasn’t that bad till he got the flu. Then he curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of the abandoned building with no light and no heat for a straight week in the winter. He said he shivered for so long it felt like he was dying. I looked at the back seat. Tanesha’s eyes were closed. We hit a pothole and her eyes fluttered. Closed but not dead.
After that ride down Old Nat, I felt guilty about not having seen George and Shane for so long. We were close when we were growing up together in New York, but after they moved down here, we never had the money to visit. Then I focused on getting into med school, then surviving med school and landing a good residency, then surviving residency. Somehow, 15 years passed without my realising it. When it was announced that this year’s gastroenterology conference was in Atlanta, I booked a ticket immediately. At a hotel in Peachtree, I attend a few panels about observed problems in the gastrointestinal system that don’t have a known cause. Midway through the third, I begin to nod off, having been unable to sleep on the flight or upon arrival in Atlanta. After jerking awake for the fourth time, I shuffle out of the aisle, into the hallway, and head to my room. I lie down, try to fall asleep, and cannot, despite my repeated yawns, so I thumb through Bambara’s book.
Later, after dinner with old med school classmates, I walk out of the dimly lit restaurant and onto the street, which is cooler and emptier than I expect. I light a cigarette and look up. The clouds hang low, a light grey in the growing dark, moving fast across the sky between the looming, tall buildings downtown. I hear a honk but keep staring. Another honk and I look ahead. Through the rolled-down window, Shane grins at me, leaning far back in his seat.
‘You still sleeping with your eyes open, Lloyd?’ he yells across the street.
I flick my smoke and climb into his large black SUV, which aims to mimic the Escalade at more affordable prices. Shane’s wearing an all-black outfit, fitted cap sunk low on his forehead to cast a shadow on his eyes. He daps me up as I sit down. When Shane hits the gas, we are already midway through a song where Offset, a Northside Atlanta native, raps, I been geeked all week; I go to sleep I don’t eat.
In the dark cast by Shane’s tinted windows, the streetlights outside a soft glow, I lean back against the leather headrest, eyes drooping from the alcohol I drank at dinner, and think of the summer we moved to the States.
After my brother, my mother and I flew from Jamaica to New York, Uncle Clark picked us up from the airport and drove us back to the apartment, where we would stay for the next few months. My brother and I shared the top bunk, George and Shane shared the bottom bunk, Uncle Clark and Auntie Latrice slept in the queen bed next to us, and my mother slept on the couch in the living room. Two pairs of siblings, one couple, and one single mother in a one-bedroom apartment above the boiler room in Flatbush in the summer. Seven Jamaicans in a one-bedroom apartment above the boiler room in the summer. A Jamaican family in a one-bedroom apartment in the summer.
Shane interrupts the memory when he asks if I am hungry. Though I am full, I say that I’m always down to eat. We keep talking and I stare out the window, trying to get a feel for this sprawling Southern city, as Shane drives from Peachtree to the Southside, cruising on the now empty highway, where we drive toward George’s house.
As we catch up, I hear the song’s chorus once more: I been geeked all week; I go to sleep I don’t eat. Geeked as in high. Geeked as in obsessed. So obsessed and so high he misses his meal before he sleeps.
We keep talking over the music about all the life events that have happened since Shane and I last saw each other: his daughter picked up the bad habit of lying, his fiancée got pregnant, and he started moonlighting as security at a club; I worked a lot, my brother still lived in the hood, and we got into an argument about something mean he said to our mother, which was really about all the ways that he was mean to me when we were growing up. Shane shakes his head, either at my brother or at me for arguing with him, and I chuckle. In the lull, Offset raps, My heart is so numb, I cannot cry, I don’t got feelings… Smoking on cookie, it end up in ashes for all of my niggas.
Numb because geeked. Geeked because numb. Geeked numb to honour the dead. Geeked numb because he survived. Geeked numb because he survived when they died and now he cannot sleep.